Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Nativity Pageant: A Sermon For The Third Sunday of Avent

A shorter sermon for this Sunday. MP

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, Sunday, 17 December, 2017

Truly there is nothing quite so wonderful and so real in the life of the church as a Christmas pageant.   Those children shuffling about in bathrobes and towels, pretending to be shepherds and angels and Joseph and Mary - we know them, they are our children, our grandchildren, and we watch them with pride and, perhaps, a little suspense as we hope nothing goes wrong.  (And goodness, so much can go wrong!  Some time I’ll tell you about my disastrous idea of giving the wise men a bag of chocolate coins to be the gold).  

 We are warmed by the innocence of this children, and some of us, perhaps, feel saddened at memories of children we know, now grown, who once played shepherd and Mary and angel and who are now missing from the life of the church.  Or maybe we are saddened by the passage of time, by our own lost innocence, or uncertainty about whether the message of this little play can compete with what Christmas has become out there in the world.  

So for me, at least, this mix of innocence and lost innocence is why I feel a mix of emotions when watching a children’s Christmas pageant.   its the same jumble of feelings I get from listening (and I do, many times each Christmas) to the famous jazz soundtrack to the Charlie Brown Christmas, composed way back in 1965 by Vince Guaraldi.  The untrained children’s voices singing “Christmas Time is Here”, or“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are full of simplicity and innocence, while the slow minor chords of the jazz piano add a layer of sadness and speak of lost innocence.

This year I got to wondering, why do we as church ask our children to act out the Christmas story for us?  What is it about this particular story that makes us turn it into a children’s event.  Perhaps it is the raw bones of the story, wondrous and simple, which seem to come out of children’s literature - a barn, animals, a magical star, a family with mommy, daddy and baby, mysterious visitors and kings no less!   You couldn’t do better than that for a bedtime story, really.  

But at the same time there is real substance and power in this story.  Gabriel setting aside the fear and shame of Mary at her pregnancy, the angels telling the shepherds not to be afraid of God, the startling and awe-inspiring fact of just who it is lying in that manger - all this is the essence of our theology, the heart of our church’s message.   St John in his gospel puts this message into abstract terms - “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), but the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke put it in real, concrete terms that any of us can understand.  Somehow, that’s the living God in that manger, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made Flesh with little fingers and toes and we aren’t alone and we don’t have to be afraid of anything.   

That’s a story so simple that children can tell it.  It’s a story with God at its very centre, a story with so much power that perhaps only children can really tell it.   Perhaps this is true of all the church’s proclamation.   The American writer Annie Dillard once wrote that the liturgy of the church is like children playing with a chemistry set, trying to make TNT.  Her point was that we scarcely imagine the power of the one whose name we invoke in our worship.  Every Sunday we are like children, trying in our eucharist to imagine the heavenly feast, playing in our fellowship at the communion of the saints who are before the heavenly throne.  These children who have just told the Christmas story are us, Sunday by Sunday, and how true and honest our worship would our worship be if we approached it with the wonder and innocence of children?

These stories that we tell, Sunday by Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, are not make believe or children’s stories, though same out there might think so.   Like children trying on their parents clothes and makeup, we know that we are imitating something real, that we are on the edge of a reality that we aspire to grow into.   In the meantime, the church’s role in this dark and preoccupied world is like Linus at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, stepping into the spotlight, and in his lisping, child’s voice telling the nativity story in the words of St. Luke’s gospel, a story that begins with shepherds abiding in the field, and the angel of the Lord telling them to fear not, for a saviour is born to them.  Those shepherds are us, our friends and neighbours, preoccupied, afraid, and called to salvation by a story so wonderful that perhaps only a child can truly tell it.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Eulogy For My Wife




Kay Leslie Brown

6 July, 1952 - 25 November, 2017

Funeral Eulogy

St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, 3 December, 2017

Bishop Shaw, dear colleagues, friends, fellow parishioners, on behalf of my family and Kay’s family, I thank you all for joining us today to pray for and to remember an extraordinary person and faithful Christian, Kay Leslie Brown.   Kay received so many acts of kindness and compassion from so many of you during her long illness that any words of gratitude I could offer would be wholly inadequate.


Kay was always tickled that when we were married, three priests and a postulant, so, for you non-Anglicans,  three and a half priests, officiated at our wedding.  I think we have that number beaten today, as there must be a small platoon of clergy and chaplains present.  Kay would enjoy that fact.


As I wrote this eulogy, I was mindful that Kay would probably not have had much interest in what I said about her, because she would never have wanted to be the focus of this event.   Kay designed this funeral, chose the readings and the hymns, so that it would be about her God.


For Kay, the words of the liturgy, the proclamation of the word, and the faithful preaching of the gospel were what mattered.  That was the exacting standard that she held my own sermons up to.  If I saw her frowning face in the congregation, I knew I wasn’t doing well.  Sometimes, in the car on the way home, she’d say “You did OK.” When it came to preaching, she was my fiercest and best critic.


In that respect, Kay always reminded me of the figure of John the Baptist, as painted in the Isenheim Altarpiece in the 1500s by Matthias Gunewald.  John is depicted off to the side, pointing to the figure of Christ on the cross.   The theologian Karl Barth loved this painting.  I know that Kay would be rolling her eyes at my working a theologian into her eulogy, but darling, you always knew that I was a geek.   


Barth said that the church must always be like John in that painting, not calling attention to itself, but rather directing attention to the cross and to Christ’s work there in defeating our enemy of sin and death.   That was Kay, like John the Baptist, always pointing to the cross.  Anytime she spoke up in the life of the church, you could be sure that would be asking, often impatiently, where was God in all our human activity.


However, darling, I am not here as a priest or a preacher.   I am here to talk about you and about what a privilege it was to be your husband.   So bear with me.  I’ll speak about you briefly, and then get out of the way of the church’s true business, as you would want.  


Kay fought a two front war with cancer and diabetes, and in the last year of that struggle she wrote a bible study on how our faith helps us to deal with pain and suffering.   She spoke on that subject with great authority.   People often told me how they were in awe of Kay’s calm, even serene, composure.  As she liked to say, God gave her “the peace which passes all understanding”.  

Despite four significant surgeries in three years, and long hospitalizations, Kay was gracious and kind with others.   As her body slowly failed her, she never gave in to self-pity or despair.   I saw her comfort other patients, nurses, and even embrace the young doctor who burst into tears as she told Kay that she had reached the end of what medicine could do for her and that she would soon die.  A priest friend of mine told me that he went to the hospital to bless Kay, and he came away blessed.  So while I regret that Kay never got to lead that bible study on living with pain and suffering, a friend pointed out to me the other day that, in a very real way, she did teach that lesson, just by the way she lived and died.


Kay would have been the first to tell you that her peacefulness and calm did not come from within, but rather were spiritual gifts.   Kay was not a saint, and she was not always a person of faith.   In her youth, she liked to say that she was, in her words, “a flaming atheist”.   In her passion for research and for the scientific method, Kay convinced herself that she had to jettison her faith, but God had other plans.  In the twenty years I was at her side, I saw Kay struggle with God’s call.  I think God had the upper hand in that struggle, because God simply reminded Kay of who she was and of who she had always been.


Kay was always a person attuned to God’s justice and grace.  Growing up in the southern United States in the 1950s and 60s, Kay saw things that would stay with her all her life.  She often told me how, as a girl, she didn’t understand why there were separate water fountains for coloured people.   At the same time she saw her father, a devoted civil servant, give the same care to black clients as he did to white ones.   Martin Luther King was one of her early and lifelong heroes.  Kay always believed that the moral arc of the universe bent towards the good, even if she stopped believing, for a while, that the moral arc came from and led back to God.  


Despite being a profound introvert at times, she attracted the misfits and the hurting, who sensed her compassion and patience.  Kay had deep reserves of empathy and kindness.   Even while she was still a self-proclaimed “flaming atheist”, she paid the tuition of a friend so she could go to seminary.    She gave freely because she had a big heart, an innate sense of decency, and an ability to see the other’s point of view.


What led Kay back to God is a long story.   I think partly it was circumstances, the people and places that God led us to, and I think it was also the frustration of her hopes to make a career in science and academia.   Kay had dreamed of winning a Nobel prize, and her academic career ended in frustration, partly due to bad luck and partly due to Kay’s struggles with mental illness.  I was attracted to Kay because of her warmth, humour, and creativity, but I soon realized that these moments came at a cost.  She had violent swings into depression and despair, and her darkest period was when she had to walk away from the university environment that she had built her identity on.


I don’t doubt for a second that it was God who led Kay out of that dark valley.  It took years for us to build a new life together.   Her career was ending as mine was taking off and that was a source of tension as well.   We learned the hard way how to build a marriage based on mutual respect, careful listening, giving and taking.  Early on I mostly took, and Kay gave, a lot.  She found satisfaction in building elaborate and beautiful gardens, in which she combined a scientific method with the flair and soul of an artist, and then she had to walk away from them, repeatedly.   Becoming a military spouse, at an age when most people are looking forward to settling down and staying in one place, meant that she had to move, frequently, and that got harder and harder on her.   Soldiers get the medals, but really the medals should go to spouses like Kay, who gave so much to advance my career.


I think the last ten years of her life were probably the best.  Kay found the right psychiatrist and the right medication, and the black clouds of her depression mostly lifted and vanished.   She made friends, and opened her house to others - wandering chaplains, military people far from home, strays and misfits - all were welcome at her table.  Kay thrived in a series of churches - St. Barnabas in Medicine Hat, St. Columba’s in Waterloo, and, of course, here.  I have no doubt that Kay could have made significant contributions to the life of St. Margaret’s and St. Giles in the years to come, had it pleased God to leave her with us.  I also have no doubt that God completed his work in Kay, by bringing her to a good place in these years.  Kay’s deep and integral goodness, her joyfulness and compassion for others, her plain speaking and prophetic voice, all these things came through strongly.  Kay was no longer a flaming atheist, she was simply flaming, a bright beacon of God’s power to bind up and restore.


I will always be profoundly grateful for the privilege of being Kay’s husband.  In my mind’s eye I will always see her as she was, her strong and capable hands weeding a garden or paddling a stream, her mouth quirked in wonder or humour, her eyes wide and seeing the beauty of the world and the people around her.   In her last years, as she grew increasingly sick and frail, Kay would talk about the resurrection body that God would give her.   She hoped that when she got to heaven, that God would give her some challenging scientific assignment, like designing a new plant species, or managing a supernova.   No sitting around playing the harp for Kay! I have no doubt that one day we will look on Kay again, in whatever form God pleases to give her, and that she will burn as bright and fierce and glorious as any star in heaven.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive