Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Lord Is Among Us: A Sermon For This Time of Pandemic

The Third Sunday of Lent, 15 March, 2020.  Readings for this Sunday:  Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

As of yesterday, March 13, the Diocese of Toronto of the Anglican Church of Canada announced that all religious gatherings in its churches and parishes were suspended to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.  This morning I was asked to record Morning Prayer and offer a reflection, to be posted on YouTube for the parish website.  It's a strange feeling, but as Matt Skinner notes in his excellent reflection on the Working Preacher website, it's in uncharted places such as this one that the church's proclamation and witness are most necessary.   MP+

The first reading for this Sunday, from Exodus (17:1-7), speaks across the ages to us, as we struggle with what it means to live in a time of pandemic.   We, the “whole congregation” of Canadians, are wandering in our own wilderness, where there is no toilet paper or hand sanitizer in the stores, where our vacations are cancelled and we’re afraid of anyone with a cough and worried about our investments tanking.   We’re afraid of being quarantined, afraid of running out of stuff, afraid of getting sick, and probably prone to being a little quarrelsome and plaintive.

When I started to write this sermon, I had no idea if I would actually deliver it in St. Margaret’s  48 hours from now.  Now I know that if you hear these words, they will be recorded on Saturday in an empty church and made available on the parish website.  History is moving very quickly, and things seem to be unravelling.     At least fifteen years ago, during SARS, we could still meet to worship.  The difference today is the need to protect ourselves and others, to “flatten the curve”.  Cancelling meetings and doing our part in social distancing is now a social duty that the church accepts, however reluctantly.    Nevertheless, as we are cut off from the companionship, the koinania, of the Body of Christ, and denied access to the Eucharist, we may feel tempted, as the Israelites did in the wilderness, to ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The wisdom of our faith, and the witness of the church, throughout the ages, is to say “yes, the Lord is among us.”   We don’t need to be in church to be with God.  The gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, that Jesus promises to his disciples, is unconditional.   God’s presence is not quarantined.

I read a series of posts on social media from a Rabbi named Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) that I thought were fill of wisdom, and I want to share them with you.  Answering the question of “where is God now?”, Rabbi Danya wrote this:

The part that has God in it is about what we all choose to do from here. The Torah commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Right now, for those of us with lower risk, that looks like punctiliousness around limiting our own exposure in order to keep others safe.

The part that has God in it is in whether we check in on those who are more vulnerable, whether we offer to run errands for them or bring by a casserole, how we reach out and towards one another during a time when everything feels stressful and scary.

The part that has God in it is in our awareness that we're all interconnected, and that each of us is an irreplaceable manifestation of the divine image. And in our decision to fight for one another--now, by staying home, not hugging, washing hands and doing everything else we can to try to help mitigate the impact of this pandemic. Personal level, family level, community level, systemic level. All hands on deck. The part that has God in it is in the showing up.

The part that has God in it is the people working tirelessly, selflessly, sometimes around the clock to take care of other people even at risk to themselves, because ill people need care, better tests need to be developed, vaccines need to be created, and it must be done.”

To the Rabbi’s wise words, I would only add this.  God is with God’s people, now, and always, and God will be visible in the actions of God’s people.  

So be calm and trust in the Lord and the presence of the Spirit.
Be wise and do your part in all public safety measures.
Be kind and share what you have.  Resist the temptation to panic buy or hoard.
Be attentive to the needs of those around you.
Finally, be a people of prayer,  mindful of the apostle’s command to pray unceasingly (1 Thes 5:17).  Pray for hospital workers, for first responders, for all who care for the sick,  for researchers, for those in service industries and those whose work is essential to the public wellbeing.   Pray for one another.   Since we can't pray at church, pray at home.  Trust that God, who is with you wherever you may be, will hear your prayers.
May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with all of us, now and always.


Sunday, March 8, 2020

Open To The Wind: A Sermon For An Annual General Meeting

Preached at Trinity Protestant Chapel, Canadian Forces Base Borden, The Second Sunday of Lent, 8 March, 2020

Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”John 3:3

Nicodemus wants what we all want in life, a light to guide his steps and good path to follow in life.    He comes to Jesus “by night”, and we can’t blame him for seeking out Jesus under cover of darkness, as no doubt many of his friends might want to punish him, a Pharisee, for wanting to seek Jesus.

However, in the symbolically rich gospel of John, everything has more than one level of meaning.   That Nicodemus should come “by night” means that he is still of the world, which in chapter 1 of John’s gospel means spiritual ignorance of Jesus:  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Nicodemus has the wisdom to perceive that Jesus is something special.   He knows, because of the miracles and “signs” that Jesus has done, that this rabbi must somehow come from God and that Jesus must somehow bring “the presence of God” closer to the world.

Jesus is sympathetic to this seeker who has come with sincere questions, but he raises the stakes.   It’s not enough, he seems to say, to want to see God, because if you want that, it’s going to be a significant, even life-changing. ”Very truly, I tell you”, Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

We need to unpack two things before we go forward.  The first is the idea of being born a second time, or being born again, a phrase with ia very specific meaning in certain parts of the Christian tradition today.   Nicodemus mistakenly thinks that Jesus is speaking of a second physical birth, which would be impossible.    Rather, Jesus speaks of this second birth as a spiritual process, for he says that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5).

I think it’s fair to say that for many Christians, the idea of being “born again” is part of the conscious decision to become a believer, to accept Jesus as Saviour via a personal decision, and thus to become saved.    For some parts of the church, this belief maps to practices of baptism (being born of water and Spirit) that one must seek out, and understand, as an adult.  Other churches might baptize the very young, and then encourage them to grow in understanding and faith as they journey through life.   

I think one can make a case either way, but if there is a trap that Christians sometimes fall into, it is to stress human agency in the process of belief.   We, like Nicodemus, seek Jesus out, we decide what to believe, and we then somehow force the Spirit’s hand through our conscious declaration and act of will.

In fact, if we look at the famous ending of today’s gospel reading, John 3 verses 16 and 17, all the agency is in fact found with God.  Look at the verbs:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Likewise in verse 17, the operative verb is send, even if it is phrased in the negative.     The human decision to believe - “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:17) - can only be made in response to God sending his Son into the world, and the transformation that believe entails can only be achieved through the power of the Spirit, which God as Trinity, three persons on one,  sends into the world along with the Son.

To sum up my first point, then, we can only believe because God allows us to believe, by making knowledge of God possible in Christ, and we only receive the power to believe and to be changed because God sends the Spirit, which remakes us as new beings with a second birth.   The power and the initiative are all God’s.  We only believe and we only are changed because of the Spirit.  Understanding these points, I think, saves us from thinking that religion and even salvation is a human project that we achieve by doing certain things.  If there is anything we do in all of this, I would say, it is only to be open to the work of the Spirit.  The rest is God’s work.

My second point has to do with the church as the place where God’s action of salvation comes to us.   Jesus tells Nicodemus "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn 3:3).   The phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are used repeatedly in the gospels to mean, I think, something like “the world as God wants it to be”.  Think of the parables, where Jesus repeatedly says “the kingdom of God/heaven is like …”, and where some veiled truth about God’s way of doing things follows.

If we look around us, right now, do we not see something of the kingdom of heaven?   I’m not speaking of this physical building, which belongs to the Armed Forces and government of Canada, but rather of the believers herein, the body of Christ as it gathers in this one specific place on a specific date, just as it has gathered across space and time for two thousand plus years.   And indeed, where else, in our earthly lives, can we hope to see the kingdom of God if not in the church?

The church, after all, is called into being by the Spirit at Pentecost, as we learn in the Book of Acts.  The church is told by Jesus in the Great Commission at the end of the gospels to go and make disciples, and the church is given the Spirit to baptize those disciples.   The church is in every respect dependent upon the work of the Spirit for its vitality.   Indeed, the order of the creeds, the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, asks us first to believe in the Holy Spirit before we are asked to believe in the church.  As Stanley Hauerwas notes, “The grammar of the Creeds means we first and foremost believe in the Holy Spirit and because of the work of that Spirit we also believe in the existence of the church”.   Without the Spirit, there is no church, and without the church, there is no way to see the Kingdom of God.

The church is the church, whether it is a grand historic cathedral, a suburban big-box mega-church with a flashing neon sign, or a Canadian Forces chapel such as this one.   We could meet in a field, or a living room, or a school gym.   The size of the building, its furnishings, its  denomination and organization, the flavour of its worship or liturgy, are irrelevant if that church remembers, and again I quote Hauerwas, that it’s “first order business …  is to be a people who under the guidance of the Spirit point the world to Jesus Christ”

That’s the mission of the church - of any church, parish, or chapel  - “to be a people who under the guidance of the Spirit point the world to Jesus Christ”.  As we move into our Annual General Meeting after our worship this morning, and ask ourselves what the goals and projects of Trinity should be in the year to come, we would do well to guide all our discussions by this simple question - how will Trinity, in obedience to the work of the Spirit, point the world to Christ and so reveal the word of God to this Base and to this surrounding community?

So we will have our meeting and make out plans, realizing that our congregation, like every Canadian Forces chapel, is transient.   People come, and people go.  Chaplains and leaders can make plans, hope to accomplish goals, evangelize, build programs - and yet that chaplain may be gone within months of receiving a posting message.  But if we in this military chapel are transient, well, so too is the Holy Spirit, which, as Jesus says, blows like the wind.  Who knows what work God will send us from here to do?  Who will God send here to take our places, to carry on our work, or to do something new?   God’s work, like the wind, is restless and ongoing.

So while today we do certain administrative things - meet, approve a budget and programs, etc, we do so with a healthy trust in the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that Christ promises will work in God’s church in ways that we might not fully anticipate or understand.    Who knows who will come to this place in a year or two, or what crisis might bring them here, seeking the comfort, love, and saving power of God?  Only the Spirit knows these things and the Spirit, thank God, leads, guards, and inspires in ways that cannot be predicted.

Note: The references to Hauerwas are from his essay “How the Holy Spirit Works”, Chapter Two of his book, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015).

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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