Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Light Breaks Through: A Sermon For Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Easter

Preached on Saturday, 31 March, 2018 at S. Margaret of Scotland’s Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON.  

Lections: Exodus 14: 10-15,21; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

When my wife Kay and I were dating, I persuaded her to come to an Easter Vigil service with me.    Not being from an Anglican background, she thought it all was very strange to be celebrating Easter on Saturday night.   Easter to her mind was celebrated in the light of morning, perhaps the first light of sunrise, but morning nevertheless.   Anything else was quite foreign to her Presbyterian upbringing.   To her, starting Easter the night before was like opening all the Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, it was simply too early.


Nevertheless she was willing to give it a try, but we were both quite unprepared for one of the customs of that particular parish we had chose to visit that night.   You see, if you look at p.329 of the Book of the Alternative Service, the rubric says “Glory to God, You are God, or some other suitable song of praise is sung.  Bells may be rung, according to local custom.” 


I think the idea behind this instruction is that when the Gloria is sung for the first time since the start of Lent, the bells are rung in celebration of the resurrection.   Well, the choir took this to extremes, so there were cowbells, symbols, airhorns, and the organist let out every stop on the pipe organ for what seemed like minutes.  Poor Kay almost jumped out of her skin.   She was frightened, and then she got mad.  WHY DID THEY DO THAT?  she asked me.   WHY DID THEY SCARE ME LIKE THAT?   To this day i’m surprised that she later agreed to marry me, but for years afterwards she acted like the entire Anglican church was to blame for that night.


While that choir certainly took things to extremes, they did understand something about the liturgy that we celebrate tonight.   They know that this is the moment, even in the gathering darkness of night, when the light breaks through.  In the first reading from Exodus, this moment is not arrival in the promised land of milk and honey, but it’s also not slavery in Egypt.    In the second reading from Romans, it’s not yet the renewal of our souls, but it’s also not our old lives of sin.   In our gospel reading, it’s not yet the encounter with the risen Christ, but it’s also not the sealed and brooding tomb.


Tonight is a transitional time.  Tonight we we stand on the borderlands of hope.   Tonight is that magical moment in the worship of the Christian church when we realize that all things are possible.


If you’ve ever sat vigil with a loved one as life ebbed from their body and the cold seeped in, tonight is for you.   If you’ve been scarred by abuse or violence and thought that nothing good could ever happen to you again, tonight is for you.  If you’ve ever believed that you were unlovable and that not even God could care for you, tonight is for you.   Tonight is when the darkness starts to crack and the light gets in.


Our three readings all begin in dark places.   Exodus starts with the Jews huddled on the edge of the impassable water, watching their doom approaching.   Romans begins with Paul speaking of the physical death that Jesus chose to share with us, reminding us of the words we heard on Ash Wednesday, speaking of our mortality: Dust you are, and dust you shall return.  Luke begins the grey light of dawn, as the Marys walk sadly to the tomb.     


All of these disasters are turned around.  The Israelites pass through the muddy sea bottom.  Christ’s death opens up the possibility of new life.  The risen Jesus gives the Marys instructions and tells them to go to Galilee where a new life awaits them.  Tonight is the end of the old story and the beginning of the new story of our lives.  


Because they knew that is a threshold moment, the early church chose it as the time for baptisms.   Converts were carefully instructed in weeks approaching Easter, and on this night between the death of the cross and the resurrection of the Sunday dawn, they committed themselves to the new lives that God offered to them.   We follow that tradition by renewing our own baptismal covenant on this night.   We do not know the details of how the rest of our lives will unfold.   But we do know that tonight we cross that border between light and darkness, between fear and hope, between death and life.   We know, as we stand between crucifixion and resurrection, that the light will always break into the darkness.   We choose light.  We choose hope.  We choose life.  We cross the border, and we move forward.   We are immigrants from the lands of shadow and the realm of death, who joyfully find ourselves to be citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Given For All: A Sermon For Maundy Thursday

Preached Thursday, March 29, 2018, at St. Margaret's Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario

Lections:  Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 17:1-17, 31b-35

Tonight we do something so unusual, so profound, so clear in its meaning, that I think the act of washing one another’s feet speaks clearly to our souls.   To kneel before someone, to touch and wash their feet, to accept the other’s offer of vulnerability and grace, and to hold that offer, like their feet, in the greatest trust and humility – these things speak clearly and eloquently to our Lord’s call to love one another that I think they scarce need a sermon to illuminate their meaning.  

Besides this service where we do this one extraordinary thing once a year, we also do the perfectly ordinary thing of coming forward to take the bread and wine.   Well, sort of.   The bread is really a weightless, tasteless disc that might be distantly related to wheat, and a tiny sip of wine.  Nevertheless we recognize that this symbols stand for something greater, and see them as a glimpse of the love and forgiveness of the heavenly banquet.  So we do this every Sunday, and as we receive the bread and wine we hear the same words each Sunday, the same words that we just heard in our second lesson, “this is my body”, “this is my blood”, “do this in remembrance of me”.  

 Could it be that on this one night, that we are so caught up in the novelty, perhaps even the shock, of water and strange hands on our gnarled and unlovely feet that we miss the importance of this strange meal that we have become so accustomed to in our weekly liturgy?    What if we were to try and recover the strangeness of this meal – can we even call it a meal?  maybe a ceremony?  a ritual? – of bread and wine that we observe every Sunday.

 This meal, what we call eucharist or communion, certainly was strange to the first Christians.   It was absolutely foreign to their thinking.  When Paul wrote his first letter to Corinth, he was writing to new believers who had started a church, but had almost no clue what they were doing or why.   They knew about communion or the Lord’s supper, but they observed it as if it was just a normal meal, conducted according to the usual social rules of the ancient world.   The haves ate with the haves and had quite a nice time.   The have nots stood at the fringes and watched,  Paul writes angrily:

20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! (1 Cor 11: 20-22)

 Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that this was an event for all of them.   No one should be left out.  It was a meal for all, to be started only when the community had come together, so that all believers would be fed, regardless of their wealth and status (1 Cor 11:33).   These instructions on how to conduct this meal were not up for debate.   As Paul told this struggling church, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23).  These instructions came from Jesus himself, and when he said “do this in memory of me”, he was speaking to all his followers.

A community that waited until all were at the table was a community that cared for one another.   It was also a community that wanted its witness about Christ to have integrity and credibility.   No one was left out of this meal, slave, rich or poor, man and woman, observant Jew and gentile believers in Christ, all were welcome.  That was a huge message in the ancient world. 

 It’s a huge message in our world of inequality and injustice, where a few control vast amounts of wealth and billions have inadequate access to food and water.   When we come forward to receive the bread and wine, rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life and from different races and places, we come forward and are welcomed by our God who wants all to be fed.   I think we make a mistake to think that the bread and wine are just spiritual food, that communion is simply about the feeding of our souls.   Food is food.  In taking the bread and wine, we remember a savior whose place was with the poor in body and spirit, who called us to care for the least among us.

 “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you”.   Tonight, our act of communion may not be as dramatic as the ritual of footwashing but they both point to the same thing.   Both actions remind us that just as God came to serve us, so are we expected to serve.  The life of this parish, particularly what we do around food, should be in the spirit of the eucharist.  If one of us brings some folded twenties to slip into the free will offering, and someone else brings an appetite sharpened by want and hunger, both should be welcome.  No one should be resented for being a free rider, because we are all free riders at the communion table.   Our social events, our programming, our mission and outreach, need to point the God who wants to feed us all out of his love and abundance.

I started by saying that the eucharist seems symbolic compared to the physical reality of footwashing.   I suppose we could do something to make communion more concrete.  We could tear off chunks of bread for one another, leaving the floor covered in crumbs, and drink the wine in big gulps so that it dribbles down our chins.    That would be fun, though it would be messy church.   But better still, I think, to make our communion truly real and truly urgent by remembering the amazingly generous spirit of the words that we hear each time we take the bread and wine.    

This is the bread.  This is the wine.  This is the love.  This is the abundance.  Given for us.   Given for all of us.   Paul  wrote, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”  May we, who have received so much grace and abundance from the Lord, hand them on to others.  May we wo do these things in remembrance of him, remember also those who are physically and spiritually hungry.   Amen.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Anti-Celebrity. A Sermon For The Fifth Sunday Of Lent

Preached March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON.

Readings for this Sunday: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ (Jn 12:21)

Is there anybody here who wouldn’t want to meet their favourite celebrity in real life? I’m guessing that all of us have some sports hero, some musician or actor that we would hang out with and talk to.   Maybe just meeting with that person would leave us speechless and slack jawed, or maybe we would have a hundred questions, or maybe we would just stammer out something totally stupid or ordinary, like “I just love your work”.   

I think this desire to meet a famous person is perfectly normal.   Perhaps it’s because we live in a celebrity culture, and we are encouraged to live vicariously through our heroes.   We even elect celebrities to political office, which doesn’t always go well, but we seem to trust them more than other choices.   Maybe its just human nature to project all of our longing, all of hopes and wishes on one well known figure, so that when they win an Oscar or a Nobel Prize, or become President or get married, we somehow feel better about ourselves because we are so invested in that person?

Do you ever wonder though, when you think about meeting a celebrity in real life, what it would be like if that person disappointed you?  What if we actually met our hero and that person turned out to be boring, or a self-centred obnoxious jerk?   Wouldn’t you be at least a little bit crushed or disillusioned?  Perhaps you might even start to wonder why you ever got so caught up in the cult of celebrity culture, you might even feel lied to about people you once thought deserved to be famous.

In today’s gospel we briefly meet some people who might have been celebrity seekers.  John tells us that “some Greeks” who happened to be in Jerusalem came up to Philip the disciple and said that they “wish to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21).   We aren’t told why they wanted to see Jesus or what they were hoping for.   It wasn’t uncommon for non-Jews to be interested in Judaism and to attend the great Jewish religious festivals, so they may have been spiritual seekers hoping to meet Jesus in the way that people today want to meet the Pope or the Dalai Lama.   They may have been converts to Judaism hoping to hear some teaching from the famous rabbi that everyone had heard of.   By this point in John’s gospel Jesus has already made his entry into Jerusalem on the donkey, the story we will celebrate next week as Palm Sunday, so perhaps these Greeks are just celebrity seekers wanting to meet the man of the day.  

Whatever the reason for their desire to see Jesus, its interesting that Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the Greeks.  He has no zero desire to play the role of celebrity.  He doesn’t invite them backstage or off them his autograph.  As N.T. Wright observes, he instead “goes off into a mediative comment about seeds and plants, about life and death, about servants and masters” (Wright 29).  Jesus talks about how “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23) but he’s not talking about the sort of glory that fans give to their celebrities.    Jesus rather is talking about God’s glory, a glory which has nothing to do with fame or fortune or power.  Jesus, you might say, is talking about himself as the anti-celebrity.

Jesus is clearly looking forward to his own death, as his comment about the seed suggests: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).  The second half of John’s gospel gives us a series of Jesus’ teachings and teachings in the last few days between his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion.   Many of these teachings focus on the idea of servanthood, the idea that we find true life when we give up on serving our own egos and reputations and instead start serving others in the spirit of the Father’s love.   For those who are invested in ego and status, giving them up can feel like death, but this sacrifice is actually the way to life.   

Then as now, this is a difficult message for humans to accept.  Our desire for affirmation and importance, even the kind of secondary, vicarious importance that we get from attaching ourselves to celebrities, works against Jesus’ message that we truly become ourselves when we let go of ourselves.    Perhaps this conflict explains the confusion after the voice from heaven affirms the words of Jesus.  Not everyone understands the voice, and some just think it was thunder.   As always in the gospels, not everyone understands what Jesus means or who he is.  Not everyone gets it.

Going back to our fascination with celebrities, I wonder if our fear of being disappointed by our heroes is because we would rather make them into what we want them to be.  We want them to be our ideals of masculinity, or femininity, or style, or heroism, or whatever we are looking for.   We don’t want them to be real.   I wonder if the same thing can sometimes be true of our relationship with Jesus.  Someone once said that we tend to see the Jesus we want to be, as if we were looking down a well and saw our reflection in the water at the bottom.   We tend to assume that Jesus looks like us, has our skin colour, our values, shares our politics.  We want him to be a champion of the poor, a defender of the status quo, a feminist, an environmentalist, a teacher, we want him to be wise, or fierce, or mild, or whatever.   It may be harder to think of him as the Son of God, the one who calls us, who challenges us, the one who wants to, well, change us by reorienting us to others.

At the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus predicts a time “when I am lifted up from the earth, [and] will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12.32).  For we who will soon be observing Good Friday, the image of Jesus raised up painfully on the cross comes to mind.  Do we wish to see Jesus?  Then by all means, see Jesus on the cross.  See his agony, see his humiliation, see him taking on the sin and hatred of the whole world so that he might change us and free us.   Our second reading, from Hebrews, speaks of Jesus’ of his “obedience” and his “reverent submission”, of his taking on this terrible thing on our behalf.  This is not the celebrity that longs to be worshipped and revered.   The cross invites us to consider the strange and wonderful anti-celebrity that Jesus is willing to embrace on our behalf.   

There are many things that make us want to be church - our desire for fellowship, our need for support, our need for peace and reassurance.   All of these things are good, but what really makes us church, I think, is that we are like the Greeks.  We want to see Jesus.   We want to see Jesus for who he truly is.   As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, we will have many opportunities to see Jesus.  We will see him enter Jerusalem, humbly, on a donkey.  We will see him wash he feet of his disciples.  We will see him share bread and wine with his disciples as he gives himself to us.  We will see him stand before Pilate.  We will see him stagger under the cross, and we will, terribly, see him lifted from the earth on that cross.  We will see him buried.   And, two weeks from now, in the light of a new dawn, we will see him rise again.

Our challenge is to let go of the Jesus we want to see and to see him as he really is, as the compassionate servant of God, as the one who gives himself to us so that we can be changed, as Jeremiah says in our first lesson, so that even our hearts and souls are rewritten.   As we approach Holy Week, think of what a strange celebrity Jesus embodies, and how different it is from the celebrity that the world chases.   Jesus says “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31).  I don’t know quite what that means, but as I read it this week I thought of the three most powerful men in the world today, the leaders of America, Russia, and China, and of how they wrap themselves in the cult of celebrity and power.  One takes delight in praising himself and telling people that they’re fired.  Another is engineering his own election win while poisoning his enemies abroad.  Another has just had himself declared leader for life.   How foolish they seem, compared to Jesus.    How confident he appears in his love and glory as the Father’s son.  He doesn’t need our loyalty, or obedience, or fear.  He comes to us as priest, as saviour, and servant.

We want to see Jesus.  This Easter and Holy Week, may we truly see him, and in seeing Jesus, may we truly see, and truly serve, one another.  Amen.

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.


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