The Universe is the Body of God: A Sermon for the First Sunday of the Season of Creation

flock of birds
Photo by Efdal YILDIZ on Pexels.com

Please join me in an experiment. This may sound cliché, but I want you to go to your happy place. I think we all have a place that we like to escape to, away from the hustle and bustle of life. It’s what the mystics call a thin place, where the space between heaven and earth is done away with. For many of us, it’s out in nature, perhaps on a hilltop overlooking a valley. Maybe it’s beside the ocean, lake or river. For others it could be in the heart of the forest. Wherever it is, I want you to go there now.

Sit up straight, preferably with your feet planted on the floor or ground, although sitting cross-legged is ok too. Close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breaths – in and out, in and then out. Now allow your mind to take your body and your senses to your special place. Let the scenery flow over you. See the sun glistening on the water or the mist shrouding the hilltop. Smell the earthy richness of the forest floor. Perhaps you can taste the salty air in your mouth. What do you hear – seagulls crying, water spilling over rocks, nothing but the sound of your own breath and heartbeat? Feel the firmness of the ground beneath you, the warmth of the sun on your face, the goosebumps on your flesh as the cool wind touches you. Who is with you – are you alone or with others? What are you doing – is it some creative activity like painting, writing, composing, sewing? Or are you just being still?

Allow yourself to linger here for a moment.

Now, what does that place evoke in you? What did you feel? What words would you use to describe that experience? Perhaps you would use words like peace, tranquility, grounded. Perhaps there are no words…just a feeling, and that’s fine too. Maybe for you it’s more of a vibe, a hum, or a resonance that you feel coursing around, in and through you. The name that I give to my experience of these types of places is connectedness.

I have vivid childhood memories of laying on my back staring up at a night sky so black with darkness, yet so full of stars that you feel like you are being sucked into the night. I remember doing the same with the northern lights one night as a child and again as a young adult in Northern Alberta. On both instances I was with a friend as we sat silently gazing at the mysterious lights dancing above us. They felt so close that I thought if I reached out my hand I could touch the light, but of course I was so transfixed that I could not move anyway. In those moments I felt a deep connection with the world around me. It was as if I was no longer just staring out at creation, but that I was peering deep into the heart of the mystery of God, the mystery of me and us. In gazing out I was really gazing in.

Christian theologians have a name for this: incarnation.

We tend to limit talk of the incarnation to Christmas, to a baby in a manger, God made flesh. But that’s only part of what the incarnation is about. Yes, the word literally means in or of the flesh, and the concept of the incarnation in Christianity generally refers to the Son of God, Second person of the Trinity, taking on human form in Jesus of Nazareth, an obscure first century Jewish itinerant rabbi.

There is, though, a long line of thought in the Church that acknowledges that this was not the beginning of incarnation but, as Richard Rohr says, only when we first started to take notice of incarnation. In fact, if you look at the beginnings of our passages from Genesis and John’s Gospel you see that incarnation has been a reality from the beginning:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Genesis 1:1-3

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” John 1:1-3

Both the writers of Genesis and John bear witness that in the beginning God created light and all that is. The light that is created is not mere sunlight from a star, for only afterwards are day and night separated. The light referenced here is believed by many Jewish scholars to refer life itself, the light of existence.

It’s hard not to see John referencing this passage in his own beginning. The key word in John’s creation story is the word ‘word’, or logos. This word logos was already in wide use when John took it and used it for his purposes. It’s a philosophical term used to describe the divine reason that brought the world into being and holds it all together. Think divine spark, the flame that ignites the bang, being itself. Think quarks, Higgs bosons, and other subatomic mysteries. Jesus is more than the “word of God” made flesh – Jesus is the Christ; the always was and always will be light of creation; the alpha and omega; beginning and end; the source of life. All that is, is from Christ. That’s some pretty heavy stuff!

Incarnation, is rooted in creation itself, an embodiment, enfleshment, “enmattement”. God is the ground of being from which all life springs and flourishes. Some Christian theologians have gone so far as to say that the universe is the body of God. Creation itself is the first act of incarnation and Jesus is the fulfilment of that incarnation. In Jesus, God enters completely into creation, moves into the neighbourhood, thus fulfilling the incarnation begun at the moment of creation. As Richard Rohr reminds us, “Incarnation is the oldest Christian story. Through Christ, God is pouring God’s self into all of creation. To be a Christian, then, is to see Christ in everyone and everything.”

The Season of Creation is a time of focused reflection on this unfathomable mystery of presence. Words cannot do justice so instead we use the sacraments to try and get at this enigmatic truth. Bread, wine, water, oils and candlelight become a means of proclaiming the truth of God’s presence, not only in this particular piece of bread or font full of water, but in all wheat, water, earth and people. We know that all life, all of it, is sacred. Every rock, river, ocean, tree, cat, dog, squirrel, codfish, seal and every person is holy and comes from God, finding its source in Christ, who is all and in all. The current environmental crisis that we face as a human species should be an affront to us, a scandal. For us this is a theological issue. We should be protesting the loudest and working the hardest to right this wrong. So what will we do?

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s. This sermon is heavily influenced by the work of Richard Rohr. You can find out more about Father Rohr’s work at the Centre for Contemplation and Action.

 

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Futurefitting the Church: Part Two

future

Over the past two years during the season of Lent, St. Mark’s has hosted a series of talks on the ‘Church of the Future’. The speakers were from a variety of religious backgrounds and diverse perspectives. The speakers were both ordained and lay, female and male, gay and straight. We also heard from important voices outside the Church, people who once identified as Christian but now identify as agnostic. These people represent the youngest, most creative and innovative voices in religion and spirituality on the North East Avalon area of the province:

Kevin Hoddinott – Pathways Community Church

Tony Bidgood – St. Theresa’s Parish and Redemptorist Order

Jason Normore – Local Church St. John’s

Rebecca Pike – St. James’s United Church and The Go Project

Katherine Brown – Bethesda Church and Generous Space LGBTQ+ Group

Miriam Bowlby – Cochrane Street United Church

Ashley Ruby – St. Mary’s Church Organist

Andrew and Ainsley Hawthorn – Secular Humanist

Dave Drinkwalter – Reunion St. John’s

They were tasked with reimagining the church of the future. What should the church of the future look like? Their goal was to move beyond the talk of decline and loss and the dismal future of the Church, to the possibilities and opportunities of the church of the future. Here is part two of a brief breakdown of what they had to say to us.

Community: Spiritual and Relational

Another marker of what it means to be the church is the coming together of the community in prayer, singing, reading of scripture, learning, confession, forgiveness, communion and sending forth. This act of coming together creates what the New Testament calls koinonia – fellowship, or what is best called community. It points to what scientists and sociologists are now telling us that as human beings we are designed emotionally, genetically and neurologically to be with others. Sadly, we live in a world where that interconnectedness – being with other actual living breathing human beings in community – is constantly being eroded through economic and technological forces. In an age where loneliness and despair are at epidemic proportions, the coming togetherness that the churches offer is more important now than ever.

All of our speakers spoke of the important role of the church as a place of community, both now and into the future. Kevin reminds us that the church is where people get together to ask the big questions of life: why am I here? What is my purpose? How do I make sense of suffering? Andrew and Ainsley said that the church is one of the few places that people can gather to discuss important moral-ethical issues, whether that’s in a church building or at a pub or coffee shop. Many people take great comfort in coming together with others in worship, being affirmed and challenged in the presence of other people. But again we have to ask why, in an age of seeking spirituality and community, fewer and fewer people look to the church? As Miriam reminded us, the nones (those with no religious affiliation), the dones (those who used to be affiliated but are now done with church), the spiritual but not religious and the ever-growing numbers who do not seek out the community offered by the church point to the need to reimagine the church.

Perhaps the most challenging vision of the church, but one that holds the most potential to resonate with the people today, is the one presented by Dave and Jason. They, and the faith communities they lead, are radically shaped around discipleship and the table. First and foremost, the church is a community of disciples, intentional followers of Jesus. That means that the church does not just gather on Sunday for one hour a week, but is with us wherever we go and in whatever we do. Nowhere do we see that radical discipleship clearer than at the table. Jesus’ ministry was one of food and table fellowship. He ate with everyone, sinners and saints alike, but for his efforts he was deemed a glutton and a drunkard. His was a ministry of reconciliation, of bringing people together in feasting and celebration. Even the healing miracles he performed were about removing barriers to community. As his disciples we are called to do the same. We are literally called to be a community of gluttons and partyers.

Actually at the heart of our worship and community is a table and a simple meal shared between friends. It is sad that years of religious and cultural trappings have hidden the idea that what we do in worship is share in a meal. How do we regain the joy and wonder of the feasting ministry of Jesus? How do we turn every table into a sacred encounter? How do we take this idea of table fellowship and kingdom feasting beyond the four walls of our buildings?

Mission: Here, Now, Local

Perhaps no other buzzword is buzzing quite so much in the church right now as mission. Although there is a lot of talk there is no real, clear definition of what is meant by mission. Basically, mission is the doing of faith. Stated in grammatically incorrect fashion, mission is faithing.

Katherine pointed to the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples the night before he died as giving a glimpse of the mission of God. Jesus prayed for his disciples, and all his disciples that would come after them. He prayed that they would share in the glory, unity and love of the father and the son. As Jesus and the father are one, so should the disciples be united in that same love. The true mark of the disciples of Jesus is not doctrinal, liturgical or denominational purity, but love. This agape, selfless love, is seen lived out in the life of Jesus. Jesus shows us God and, at the same time, shows us what it means to be truly human. Jesus shows us how God intends for us to live together in community, how we organize ourselves politically and economically. This is another way of saying the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, the church has equated mission and the kingdom of God with converting people to the Christian religion, and as some kind of divine escape plan. Mission was reduced to evangelism, converting the heathen masses to our Western version of Christianity. Miriam reminded us that mission is something that is happening right here in our midst. She said that the church is a community grounded in community, in neighbourhoods. Our mission is to seek the well-being of those communities and neighbourhoods. We used to be good at this. We built schools, hospitals and universities. Wherever there was a need, the church rallied to meet it. But it seems we have lost our way, shrunk back from the needs of the communities around us. We find ourselves holed up in buildings, longing for the good old days when the church had more cultural clout. Miriam urged us to build relationships and partner with groups that are already doing good work in our neighbourhoods. Kevin, too, said that the church is at its best when it adds value to peoples’ lives, when it makes peoples’ lives and the world better.

Jason spoke to the idea that God’s Kingdom or ultimate salvation lies somewhere other than here in this life. God’s mission is not some grand escape plan from earth to heaven. The incarnation reminds us that God enters into time and space, takes up the physicality of creation. The divine plan is not an evacuation of the righteous to heaven and the casting of the sinners to hell. It is instead the making new of this world, the only one we have. The church for Jason, then, is the followers of Jesus, seeking to be their best, right where they are, with each other. The church is hyper-local, here and now, and relational. All of our speakers agreed that the church should be shaped by love, partnerships and service…not programs, hierarchical structures, and protecting the status quo.

The Future is Young and Creative

Rebecca, who is herself only 30 and has years of youth ministry experience, said that the church needs to make a place for youth in the church. We don’t do that by starting youth groups, playing games and introducing sleek liturgies and hip music to worship. We do it by giving them a voice and a place of ministry. The church needs to find ways to allow youth to take up leadership roles in our parishes. Not in token roles like synod delegates, but on our vestries, finance committees and strategic planning groups. They will bring new energy, fresh eyes and…brace yourselves…change. She said it’s important the church reflect the modern world both liturgically and theologically. Young people are best suited to help us reflect those ways of thinking and communicating much better than us older folk.

Dave and the folks at Reunion St. John’s also reminded us of the importance of creativity. They define themselves as a community creating a culture of adventure and innovation. Adventure and innovation are not necessarily words associated with church but they, and other upstart churches, are creatively pursuing mission. The church needs to recover risk-taking mission and not be afraid of failure. The days of large cumbersome denominations and dioceses are numbered, but the future of small, local, informal, loving, committed and daring faith communities is wide open.

Futurefitting the Church: Part One

future

Over the past two years during the season of Lent, St. Mark’s has hosted a series of talks on the ‘Church of the Future’. The speakers were from a variety of religious backgrounds and diverse perspectives. The speakers were both ordained and lay, female and male, gay and straight. We also heard from important voices outside the Church, people who once identified as Christian but now identify as agnostic. These people represent the youngest, most creative and innovative voices in religion and spirituality on the North East Avalon area of the province:

Kevin Hoddinott – Pathways Community Church

Tony Bidgood – St. Theresa’s Parish and Redemptorist Order

Jason Normore – Local Church St. John’s

Rebecca Pike – St. James’s United Church and The Go Project

Katherine Brown – Bethesda Church and Generous Space LGBTQ+ Group

Miriam Bowlby – Cochrane Street United Church

Ashley Ruby – St. Mary’s Church Organist

Andrew and Ainsley Hawthorn – Secular Humanist

Dave Drinkwalter – Reunion St. John’s

They were tasked with reimagining the church of the future. What should the church of the future look like? What must the church of the future look like? They were asked to go beyond the hand-wringing, naysaying and despair that usually accompanies such conversations. Their goal was to move beyond the talk of decline and loss and the dismal future of the Church, to the possibilities and opportunities of the church of the future.

This re-visioning of the future church is what author Michael Allan Beck calls “futurefitting” in his book Deep Roots, Wild Branches: Revitalizing the Church in the Blended Ecology. It plays on the urban planning concept of retrofitting, which is the adding of new technologies and infrastructure to older, long-existing systems. In the church, futurefitting has to do with sustainability and revitalization. It means striking a balance between creating space for new emerging models of church, while at the same time restructuring the inherited or established church for a sustainable future. It’s what Beck calls a blended ecology – one that plants and nurtures the emerging and, at the same time, cultivating (growing and sometimes weeding out) the traditional expression of church. As Beck says, “Remember, giving birth and raising the dead are equally reflective of the triune God.”

Most of the talks were recorded and can be viewed on our YouTube channel. Here is part one of a brief breakdown of what they had to say to us.

Story, Ritual, Tradition

These three things are core to what it means to be church. The stories we tell about God, the world and each other are central to any religious tradition. We identify ourselves by the sacred stories we share. These stories shape our political, moral and economic choices. The church has taken for granted that everyone knows the story and reads the story in the same way. That’s simply not true anymore, if it ever was true. But as Tony reminded us, there is still a spiritual hunger. People are still looking for a story in each around which to orient their lives. The stories of scripture, in particular the stories of Jesus, still resonate with people. It’s just that we have to scrape away the years of religious and cultural baggage that have been heaped on them, to see the lasting relevance and beauty of these stories.

The power of story was illustrated in the fact that Jason, Rebecca, Katherine, Miriam and Dave all started their talk by telling us their story. More importantly, how their story intersects with God’s story or the story of the church. Even Andrew and Ainsley, who are no longer a part of the church, felt that it was necessary to tell their story of leaving the church. Story helps us make sense of our experiences, both religious and non-religious. Again, as Tony said, it is of the utmost importance right now that the church listen to people’s stories – stories of faith, doubt, pain, loss, rejection, questioning. It’s also important that the church find new and creative ways to help people connect their story with the divine story, which is a story of meaning, purpose and love.

Another way that we tell stories and find our place in bigger narratives, is by participating in rituals and traditions. In the sacraments we tell the story of our salvation and sustaining in the love of God and God’s people. We mark the rhythms of the year and seasons through the keeping of a different calendar through Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Ordinary time. We mark the movement of our lives through birth, maturing, love, sickness and death in the rituals of the church. Again, for so long in our Christendom culture, we have taken these rituals and traditions for granted. Now for so many they seem empty and meaningless. Even in our own parish communities we are left wondering what the role of these practices is anymore.

We must, though, be careful not to jettison these rituals in pursuit of some newfound relevance or cultural cache. Our secular humanist speakers, Andrew and Ainsley, pointed out that these religious traditions and rituals are one of the most important contributions that churches make to the wider community. They wonder who or what will take on these roles as churches continue to decline.

Our speaker that spoke the most clearly on tradition was actually one of our youngest. Ashley reminded us of the importance of our inherited traditions. They are a gift of the past from our ancestors, those who have walked the road of faith before us. Tradition is their collective experience of God passed on to us in the form of story, ritual and tradition. Tradition is the container in which faith is passed from one generation to the next. But Ashley also cautioned that we not confuse the container with the content, not confuse tradition with faith it seeks to transmit. She also reminded us that as lovely as a gift can be, if it serves no further purpose or has no practical use, what good is it? The challenge, then, is to keep the best of our traditions, while dealing gently and lovingly with those traditions that need to be discontinued. At the same time we need to find new rituals, traditions and expressions of faith that speak truth and meaning into our modern world.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s

 

Jesus is Not a Tame Messiah: A Sermon for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost

tame lion

Luke 12:49-56
12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

12:52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;

12:53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

12:54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.

12:55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.

12:56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In the days before Amazon and easy access to books, I checked out this book from my school’s library. I had no idea that it was a part of a whole series of books. I didn’t know until later in my teens that it was such a popular book, and that it had been turned into a series of films in the late 80’s. We lived a very sheltered life way back then in outport Newfoundland.

I was overjoyed when the book was brought back to film screens in the 2005 re-adaptation. I was excited that my kids would now get to experience this great story that meant so much to me. If you’re not familiar with it I will try to summarize it without giving too much away. Four children from wartime England are sent away from the city to the safety of the countryside home of an eccentric uncle. There they find a magical wardrobe and stumble into the Land of Narnia. Narnia is populated by talking animals and mythical creatures like centaurs. Narnia is ruled by a lion named Aslan, but Aslan hasn’t been seen in quite a long time. In his absence, Narnia has fallen under the control of the evil White Witch. She has put Narnia under her despotic control and permanent winter. As the children arrive in Narnia there are reports that Aslan has been spotted. Aslan is on the move!

In what is one of my favourite scenes from the book, the children find themselves in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Over a meal and cup of tea Mr. Beaver is trying to explain to the children just who Aslan is:

Mr. Beaver said, “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion…”

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you… He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

Aslan is definitely not safe or tame, but he is good!

Anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia series knows that Aslan is a type of Christ. It was Lewis’ way of imagining Jesus the Christ active in another world. As I read this story as a youngster it really resonated with me. I was making my first steps in making sense of all this Jesus stuff. I had my hermeneutical training wheels on, so to speak. As I made my first attempts to read the Gospels what I read were the stories of a wild, dangerous man. What I witnessed in church was a safe, docile Jesus. The Gospels presented a Jesus that upset the status quo, hung out with sinners and prostitutes, touched unclean women and men, seemed to play fast and loose with religious laws and ticked off religious people in the process. The Jesus they preached about in church seemed to be a white washed version, clean and sanitized. Jesus looked and sounded an awful lot like us. I was drawn to the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, even though he made me really uncomfortable and said very challenging things. The Jesus I was given in church was boring and seemed more like a prop for the pastor to rail against whatever sin he was trying to scare out of us. Aided by Lewis, this was my first inclination that Jesus wasn’t tame, but he was good in some new and exciting way that my young brain could not quite grasp just yet. I’m not sure I grasp it even yet, but I am still drawn to this Jesus character.

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday is one of those passages that turns upside down our image of the meek and mild Jesus that wants us all to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. It comes towards the end of Chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus has grown increasingly agitated in his words to the crowd gathered around him. The passage begins with the inflammatory, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” You can almost hear the gasp in the crowd. If they had been sitting in pews they would be squirming. This is not what we have come to expect from Jesus, who we have turned into a type of motivational speaker. He’s supposed to make us feel good about ourselves. But Jesus seems to know his death is near and it’s stressing him out. He refers to his death as a baptism, one that he just wants to be over and done with.

He goes on to ask, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” And we, with all the gathered crowd, could answer, “Well, yes…yes we did!” You know, the peace on earth and all that good stuff that the angels promised at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Peace, yes; fire, no.

Peace, though, does not come without a little discomfort for someone. In Jesus’ Kingdom message, his gospel, things have to be made right before there can be peace. The fire Jesus talks about is not a fire of apocalyptic destruction, but one of purifying. It’s a controlled burn to let loose the nutrients of the kingdom in earthly soil, so that the fruits of justice, equality and, yes, peace can take root. He gave us fair warning of his mission in his opening statement in Luke’s Gospel:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
      to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4:18-19)

Not everyone will welcome this fire. For some it will look like destruction, an undoing, not a renewing. It’s hard for us to comprehend just how divisive this gospel was. We live in a world still steeped in the Christian tradition. For the early Christians for whom Luke’s Gospel was written down, they knew all too well the division that Jesus and his message brings. Kicked out of their synagogues, shunned by family and friends. Branded radicals, heretics, and enemies of the state all because they named Jesus and not Caesar as Lord, clung to faith and love as the only ways to God’s favour. What does my Christian faith cost me? Maybe a snarky comment on Facebook? Maybe a raised eyebrow when I disclose that I work for the church?

Jesus chides the people for being able to read the weather patterns, but not the signs of the time. They do not see the kairos, the divinely appointed time that Jesus inaugurates. Don’t you see what’s happening? Don’t you see the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom? You get ready when weather approaches, so why not prepare for the changing times? This is a dig at their unwillingness to repent, literally to change their mind and actions, in the wake of the Kingdom announced by Jesus.

In the church we’re not comfortable with any of this. Fire? That sounds too revivalistic! Division? Can’t we all just get along? Change? We’ve always done it this way! Sounds like mixing politics and religion. This is a Jesus we’re just not comfortable with. Give us the Jesus that promises eternal life and speaks comfortable words. Give us the Jesus that offers us an easy yoke; the Jesus who looks like me, sounds like me, and meets my checklist for what a messiah looks like; who reinforces my ideas of who is in and who is out. We want the tame Jesus, who makes it clear who are our enemies and who protects the status quo. But then in passages like this we are reminded, to our horror, that Jesus is not a tame messiah – but he is good, and his way is good.

Jesus refers to fire, literally setting the world on fire. For this fire to come, it must first set our hearts ablaze, set the church ablaze. For others to have, maybe we have to go without out. For this world to be just, peaceful, clean, perhaps something needs to change in us. For us to name Jesus as Lord, not the political leaders and systems of this world, means that we do not live according to the values of these old, dead, decaying systems. To follow Jesus as his apprentices means we learn from his way of forgiveness, reconciliation, gentleness, generosity, love.

This is why I think baptism is still a radical, counter-cultural practice. We tend to get warm fuzzies when we think about baptism. The oil of chrism marks the newly baptized as Christ’s own, forever. The light of the baptism symbolizes the light of Christ that shines in the believer. But in rethinking baptism in light of today’s gospel reading, we glimpse just how radical baptism is. First, remember that baptism symbolizes the joining of the newly baptized in the death and resurrection of Jesus; the old dies and a new person emerges. Second, the little light of Christ is actually a burning fire, setting our hearts and the world ablaze. Finally, baptism unites us not just to the meek and mild Jesus, but the wild, unpredictable Christ. The call of baptism is to follow this untamed messiah out into the world. The question remains: will we leave the safety of our churches to follow him?

 

A Curmugeony Gospel: A Sermon for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost

curmudgeon3

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,*
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity. <!– 12 –>

12 I, the Teacher,* when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.*

18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.                   Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12-14; 2:18-23 

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’          Luke 12: 13-21

There are pros and cons to getting older. On the con side your body starts to turn against you. I find I’m at a stage in my life where I have to take off my glasses to read anything. I have to increasingly be vigilant over what I eat. Gone are the days when I could easily drop ten pounds just by cutting back a little. My stomach constantly reminds me of my age when I consume the wrong things. My joints and muscles are not happy with me when I do any activity that is even slightly out of the ordinary. Yes getting older is no joke.

There is, though, a bright side to getting older. I find in my 43rd trip around the sun that I care less and less what other people think about me. There is a liberation in getting older. Life experience slowly starts to translate into wisdom. I’m starting to realize that the things that matter most in life are not things at all. Things like status, wealth, and material possessions are fleeting at best. The things that we spend the first half of our lives chasing, when we find them, turn out to not be what we needed at all. As the fires of idealism and youthful naiveté burn out, we are left with the burning embers of pragmatism. If we learn to be content with the heat they provide, we will see that there is plenty of fuel left for the second half of our lives.

Along with this our tolerance for BS goes way down. We know that life is too short to waste on trivial matters. Personally I see myself getting more and more curmudgeony every day. I have a constant urge to tell whippersnappers to turn down that racket, pull up those pants and get off my lawn.

This is kind of the way I see the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s a book of aged, second half of life, curmudgeony, practical wisdom. Now we don’t hear much from Ecclesiastes in the lectionary. This Sunday’s reading is only one of two appearances. Most of us have probably only heard the famous “Time for everything” reading either at a funeral or in the Bird’s famous folk song rendition. There was some doubt about whether the book should even be included in the Hebrew canon. It finally was included thanks to its association with Solomon, although Solomon very likely had nothing to do with it. When you read Ecclesiastes it’s easy to see why it was so hotly contested. Its biting realism, disillusion and skepticism make it an unlikely candidate for a holy book. It makes it an unlikely candidate to get much of a reading today either, with our culture’s fixation on happiness and positivity. But it’s a wonderful thing that it was included because real is where most of us live our lives, with a healthy side of disillusion and skepticism.

In our Christian Canon Ecclesiastes is placed between Proverbs and Song of Songs. Literally stuck between do-this-and-all-will-be-well wisdom and burning, erotic passion. One we know does not quite work out the way it promises and the other we know does not last (I leave it to you to figure out which is which). The book takes its name from the Hebrew and Greek words (feminine I might add) for one who gathers the assembly. So basically this is the preacher or teacher gathering and addressing the assembled faithful. It could just as easily start off with “Sit tight y’all because I’m about to give it to you straight.”

Instead it starts with the words, “Vanities of Vanities! All is vanity.” My dear old grandmother, God rest her soul, quoted this line anytime anyone talked of possessions, wealth or the lack thereof. “Vanities, vanities, my dear, all is vanity,” she would say as she rhythmically tapped her lap with her closed eyes and grinning face turned towards her maker. What follows is a good sampling of the portions of pragmatic wisdom that the Teacher will dole out in the remainder of her address to the faithful:

B’ys I’ve given this a fair bit of thought and I have come to the conclusion that life is hard. Most of what we do in life is vanity, fleeting, As Dylan said you might as well try and catch the wind. Why work hard to build up riches when you’re just going to leave it to some stunned relative who will probably waste it. What a waste! Why spend time, even lose sleep, worrying about getting ahead in this life. What a waste!”

If you think you’re the first one to see things this way, then go talk to your dear ol’ granny. If you think you’ll be the last, just hang around for a bit longer. There’s nothing new under the sun my son! You know what I’m talking about, the more things change the more they stay the same and all that jazz!

Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, so get over it!

The Teacher goes on to tell us other hard truths. We will all die, regardless of whether we are rich or poor, saint or sinner, wise or fool. Yes God has a plan for us, is even active in our lives, but sadly it remains hidden from us, a mystery. All we are left with is today, right now, to live our lives and make the best of the path we choose. As the writer Frederick Buechner (pronounced Beak-ner) says in summing up the teacher, “Often people are closest to God when they need him most and that sometimes they know him best by missing him.”

In our Gospel reading another teacher makes an appearance. He is renowned for teaching with authority. Unlike the religious elites he speaks directly to the needs of the people. They love his practicality and honesty. He has shades of the old Teacher from Ecclesiastes in him. He pulls no punches, telling it like it is. He is wise beyond his years. In fact he seems to embody Sophia, wisdom in the flesh.

In chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel a crowd has assembled around Jesus. A voice cries from the crowd for Jesus to settle an argument about a family inheritance. Jesus warns the crowd against the dangers of greed and materialism. He tells them a parable of a rich man whose life centers on just that. When he dies, like everyone else, what good are his riches to him. You can hear the echo of the old Teacher in the words of Jesus: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Vanities of vanities! What a waste!

But what does it mean to be rich toward God? The key comes later in verse 31: “But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.” The Message translation expands on this passage:

“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

This is another of the great lessons that age teaches us: we can’t do it on our own. We need the help of others and we need to be help for others. We know all too well how raw, even cruel, life can be. In the face of loss, pain, rejection, injustice, inequality, and struggle we learned that life is unfair, often ugly. But hopefully it has also shown us beauty, especially when we open ourselves up to others. If the old Teacher shows us of the vanities and fleeting reality of the things of this life, Jesus teaches us a new twist. This life is not just lived for ourselves, but for others. In the Kingdom of God, in God’s economy, we are all interconnected and responsible to each other. Yes we need to hear the stark reality and hard truth of Ecclesiastes but we also need to hear the truth of the good news of Jesus. We are all precious to God and we are in this together. Our lives and all that go with them are not our own, they are from God and because of that we are responsible to each other. This is basically what Saint Paul, another great teacher, is saying to the Colossian assembly when he says “but Christ is all and in all!’ If I may take the liberty of rewording the Beuchner quote from above: Often people are closest to God when they need him most, that sometimes they know him best by not missing him in the needs of others.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.

 

 

Creation Care for Those Who Come After Us

 

Greta Thunberg

“For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us, Accept our repentance, Lord.” – Book of Alternative Services, p. 285

The above words of confession are from the ‘Litany of Penitence’ in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The emphasis of my first four columns has really been on the first part of that confession; that is, our waste and pollution of God’s creation through the waste we create, especially single-use plastics, and the greenhouse gases we emit though our transportation choices. Anglicans profess faith in a God who created all that is, and yet we continue to desecrate that which God has created and entrusted to our care. This fragile earth is “the mother of all the living” (Sirach 40:1) and we share her with all living things. Yet, somewhere along the line we lost our reverence for Mother Earth. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that we’ve come to view her “simply as matter, and no longer as holy.” And so, he warns, “[i]t is time for us to respect the holiness of God’s earth once more, before the catastrophes descend on us.”

The catastrophes Moltmann speaks of are still some distance in the future, far enough that many of us who are adults today won’t have to deal with them. That burden we leave to our children and grandchildren. The world’s leading climate scientists say that we have until 2030 to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic climate change. At present we are on a path to 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. I’m not aware of any person of science who believes human civilization can survive that. Yet, we continue to feed our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels without any meaningful thought of what that means for the children and youth of today. Where is our concern for those who come after us? Who represents them in our individual and collective decision-making today?

Let’s face it, neither our economic nor our political systems represent the children and youth of today. Indeed, political communist George Monbiot describes our current economic system as “an environmental pyramid scheme, dumping its liabilities on the young and the unborn. Its current growth depends on intergenerational theft.” And philosopher Roman Krznaric rightly points out that our political system fails our children and future generations because today’s “politicians can barely see beyond the next election, and dance to the tune of the latest opinion poll or tweet.” He refers to this myopia as “political presentism” which “pushes the interests of future generations permanently beyond the horizon.” He even goes as far as to say, our “representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people”, and so those who come after us “are disenfranchised in the same way that slaves or women were in the past.” They have no voice. Our economic and democratic systems “render them voiceless and airbrush their futures out of the political future.”

So who speaks for those who come after us? Despite the Church’s call to care for creation as an integral aspect of our faith, the need for the second half of that confession in the Litany of Penitence makes it clear we’ve fallen short on a personal level. Indeed, we’ve been largely silent – if not apathetic – about creation care which, for our children and grandchildren, is an existential issue. It’s time for us to give voice to those who come after us. It’s time that our personal and collective actions build and protect the future the children and youth of today are calling for. On that note, I leave you with the prophetic words of sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who gives voice to my grandchildren’s generation with a clarity sadly lacking among far too many adults today.

“The year 2078 I will celebrate my seventy-fifth birthday. If I have children or grandchildren maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask about you, the people who were around back in 2019. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. What we do or don’t do right now will affect my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. What we do or don’t do right now me and my generation can’t undo in the future. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Father Mark Nichols is Associate Priest at St. Mark’s Church in St. John’s NL. This article was published in the May 2019 issue of Anglican Life.

Resurrection is Contagious: A Homily for the Great Vigil of Easter

candlelight

It’s funny how an idea gets in your head…how it takes root and then turns into a bigger idea until it changes the way you see things. A couple of weeks ago, as part of a casual scroll through Facebook, my attention was drawn to a cartoon posted by a clergy friend of mine. The cartoon has the tagline “what if they had cell phones at the resurrection”. It shows Jesus stepping out of the tomb to a small crowd recording this miraculous moment. One person has their back turned to the glorious appearance, texting a friend the details no doubt.

While this carton may give us a good chuckle, and makes a claim about how we use, or are used by technology today, it does raise a very important theological question: what if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning with their cell phone camera clicking or recording away at the moment of resurrection – what would they have seen?

cell phone easter

For most of the earliest Christian tradition there was little or no paintings, pictures or carvings of the resurrection. It was thought to be too mysterious, too incomprehensible to replicate. Later artwork simply showed an empty tomb, stunned guards or radiant angels to represent the resurrection. Later on in the Western Church Jesus began to be shown stepping out of the tomb alone, maybe with an angel or two close by as witnesses, and often with him carrying a white banner or flag. The banner is symbolic of his victory or death – Jesus has conquered death, and so we, too, will be raised to new life after we die. Jesus is the personal saviour, and faith in him holds out the promise of resurrection, understood as life after death, to individuals.

But is that all that the resurrection of Jesus is or does? Is it just life returning to a dead body? Is it final proof that Jesus is indeed the son of God? Is it just a singular event or does it have more of a communal application?

In the Eastern Church they have always had a different view of Jesus’ resurrection. In their art, Jesus never rises alone. He’s always pictured rising with others, Adam and Eve especially. Jesus rises carrying with him the first ancestors of the human species. The symbolism is unmistakable: when Jesus is raised we are all raised.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, back to my original question: if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning what would they have seen? Contemporary Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says that what they would have seen is light, beams of light shooting out in all directions, like the warping of time and space. The bruised and bloody body of Jesus, laid on cold stone, immersed in the smell of decay and fresh dug earth, explodes in light, becoming the glorified body of Christ. The dead become alive. From the darkness comes light. Then and there becomes universal, eternal.

This is not an outrageous idea. The first act of creation, the very first word, is light. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures light is a powerful metaphor of the unseen God, whether it’s the smoking fire pot, the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the sacrificial flame or the consuming fire of the coming Day of the Lord. Yahweh is light!

The Christians take up this theology of divine light and freely apply it to Jesus. He is the light that shines in the darkness, on those who live in darkness (Matt 4:16; Luke 1: 79; Isa 9:2). In John’s gospel Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world (8:12). All throughout the synoptic gospels Jesus heals those who are blind and helps others to see clearly the truth of the Kingdom of God. Early Christians had no problem applying the language of God’s light to Jesus. The writer of the letter of John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) and that in Jesus that light of love is seen in a new and radiant way.

In their liturgy, too, they made great sacramental use of light to express Jesus and his theological significance. Our liturgy this evening is a perfect example. The ancient celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter not only aims to tell the great story of salvation from creation through to resurrection by the reading of scripture, but it also uses light to tell this story. And it tells us how that light, the divine light, the light of Christ, the light of that first Easter morning, now burns in each one of us.

We begin with the light of the new fire, symbolic of the eternal light of God. From it we light the Paschal or Christ candle, the light of resurrection, the new creation, coming into the world. From it we light our own candles, symbolic of the spread of that first resurrection light out into the world. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection, but it spreads in every human life in which the light is allowed to shine. Then in baptism we pass this light to the newly baptized, to Amy and Alexa. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.

This is something that both the fundamentalist atheists and Christians get wrong about the resurrection. They waste incredible amounts of time arguing about whether or not Jesus was physically raised from the grave, whether resurrection is a historical, factual event. They miss the point entirely. The resurrection is an unfolding, all-encompassing reality. It is the new creation light of God, that all of us, all of creation is being caught up in, participating in.

That’s why I think light is such an appropriate way to describe resurrection. We have all experienced it, felt it and know it to be true. Perhaps it was at a bedside as we held the hand of a loved one, whose faith and courage in the face of death filled us with light, a light the lingers still. Or perhaps it was as you held your child for the first time – especially for mothers – and you know that such beautiful light has come from such long waiting, pain and suffering. Maybe it was as you sit beside an ocean or mountain or the great wide expanse of the prairies, and your senses drink in the vastness of creation, the immensity of something bigger than you. Or perhaps you have caught a glimpse of it with your hands in the soil of your garden, as green shoots of life spring from the decomposing soil and subterranean creepy-crawlies scatter in the summer sunlight.

Yes, for those who have eyes to see it, resurrection is everywhere, even in everyone. We who follow Jesus should know that better than anyone. Like sparks from a great fire, resurrection is springing up everywhere. To quote the great Ricard Rohr again: “Resurrection is contagious, and free for the taking. It is everywhere, visible and available for those who have learned how to see, how to rejoice, and how to neither hoard nor limit God’s ubiquitous gift.” So perhaps if we could get this idea, the new way of seeing into our heads and hearts, we would find a new way of following Jesus, a new way of being his church, a new way to proclaim and live that Christ is risen indeed.

Amen.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.