A Theology of Creation that Honours our Creator

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For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. For your immortal spirit is in all things. – Wisdom 11:24-12:1

Why is it that, by and large, Christians are not leading the charge to save our planet from the ecological destruction inflicted by plastics pollution and climate change? Indeed, political leaders and parties who ignore, dismiss and deny the ecological crisis before us bask in significant support from large numbers of Christian voters. This is particularly true of Christians in developed nations like Canada. How is it that the same religion which renounced Gnosticism because of its negative view of the material world has come to hold such a negative view of the material world?

Western Christianity has largely adopted an understanding of the ‘dominion’ human beings were given over the natural world (Genesis 1:26) in the sense of domination as opposed to stewardship. We see ourselves as owners rather than caretakers. We can sing “This is My Father’s World” all we like, in practical terms we exploit and pillage this world as if it is ours and ours alone. We have also developed an anthropocentric theology of salvation which effectively reduces this earthly life to some sort of divine test to get into ‘the next life’. What odds if we destroy this planet, we are on our way to ‘a better place’. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues this view of salvation “has blinkered our eyes to the rest of creation.”

All of creation matters to God – all things, seen and unseen. God created “the heavens and the earth…and all their multitude” and deemed it to be “very good” (Genesis 2:1, 1:31). Indeed, creation is as much a source of revelation as are the scriptures. “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made” (Romans 1:18-20). Thus, the scriptures repeatedly praise the created order as manifesting God’s glory. Clearly we have gone astray and need to find our way back to a theology of creation that regards all that God has made with due reverence, care and concern.

The Church has been calling us back to such a view of creation for quite some time. In our own tradition it is one of the ‘Five Marks of Mission’ that guide the mission of the Anglican Communion. The Church also encourages us to observe a ‘season of creation’ which begins September first and culminates with the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, someone historian Lynn White Jr. refers to as “the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ.” In St. Francis we have a Christian role model to lead us off of the ecologically catastrophic path we are walking, someone who regarded fellow creatures as brother and sister, and lived by a theology of the equality of all creatures in the eyes of God. We would do well to follow his example and renounce the prevailing Christian view that human dominion over creation means domination of creation. This is our Father’s World. Time is running out for us to recover and live out a theology of creation that reflects this truth and honours our Creator. Indeed, if we are to save something of our Father’s world for our children and grandchildren – not to mention the other species God created – we will need to be as radical as St. Francis.

Father Mark Nichols is Associate Priest at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in St. John’s, NL. This column appeared in the November 2019 issue of Anglican Life.

Gift of Blessing: A Sermon for the Marriage of Rick & Steve

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So what does it mean to bless?  We hear it in the gospel reading today.  It’s what we gather here to do in the sacrament of marriage.  We use the word bless a lot in Church. We ask God to bless us, bless those we love.  Even in everyday talk we use the word bless.  Someone sneezes, we say ‘God bless you’.  Someone does something nice for us, we say ‘Bless your heart’.  But what are we actually saying, or better yet doing, when we bless?

I guess the best place to start is in the beginning, in Genesis, in the first creation story. After creating human beings, God blesses them.  The Hebrew word here is barak.  In its earliest form it meant to bow before.  It’s also closely connected with the Hebrew word for gift.  So in the Jewish sense, blessing is an acknowledgement, or gift of respect, even a celebration.  It is to recognize the presence, the value or worth of the other.  So when God blesses God’s creation, it’s as if God takes a step back to acknowledge the divine handiwork, bows in respect and says ‘Not bad, if I do say so myself’.

With this in mind, let’s fast forward to our Gospel reading – the Beatitudes – the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel According to Matthew.  We often misread the Beatitudes, reading them as if Jesus is giving us the conditions for being blessed.  Jesus is not giving us a to-do list.  Go mourn and then you will be blessed.  Get someone to persecute you and then you will be blessed.  And he is not saying do or be this and you will be happy.  No, what Jesus is saying is much more radical.  Remember that radical just means to go back to the root of something.  Jesus is using the more ancient understanding of blessing as respect, of acknowledgement of value.  Jesus is just blessing people, giving a nod to those who are often unseen, unheard and unappreciated.

In his day Jesus was really turning the understanding of blessing on its head.  God’s blessing is not with the strong, the powerful, the rich, the laughing, the comfortable or the bombastically arrogant.  Rather God acknowledges and celebrates the weak, the poor, the victimised and the meek.  That was challenging then, and it is challenging now. We still live in a world that blesses the mighty, the super-rich, the celebrity, the beautiful and the normal.  Sadly, the Church is often no better.  We bless those that have it all together.  We bless certainty.  We bless what fits into our preconceptions of blessedness.

The Sermon on the Mount is all about what it looks like to live life in the Kingdom of God. So for Jesus to start out with this subversive blessing spree, he is making a bold statement about life in the Kingdom of God, God’s economy.  In a sense Jesus is saying, ‘I see you’.  In a world that blesses the strong, I bless the weak.  You may admire the powerful and seek what they have, but I am here blessing the vulnerable and those on the margins.  I see your brokenness and frailty and I bow to it.  You are of heaven and a gift to the world.  In this economy you are not a problem to be solved or an obstacle to be overcome – you are a people to be respected and celebrated.  There is a place for you here.

In a way Jesus is blessing all human life here.  He is blessing the human experience.  Isn’t this what the incarnation is all about?  God hallows the human experience, by taking on human flesh, frail skin and bone.  Blessed is the body and all bodies.  Blessed are the emotions, the longing, the desire.  Blessed is the pleasure and the pain.  Blessed is the messiness, the fleshiness of life.  Blessed is the doubt and the uncertainty of living. Blessed is the struggle and blessed are those who struggle and strive.  Blessed are those who have lost something, anything, everything.  Blessed are those who mourn and grieve, for they have loved enough to recognize what is lost.  Blessed are those who love, because to love is to share in the life of God.

You see, for God to bless is not just to acknowledge from a distance, but to embrace.  As Richard Rohr says, “God loves things by becoming them.  God loves things by uniting with them, not by excluding them.”  And to love others is to share in that same deep, divine mystery.  When we bless, we only ever bless what is already blessed by God.  Joining in as latecomers to what God has always being doing, drawing the circle wider, and wider still.  God is love, and where there is love there is God.  What a blessing!

And that brings us to today.  Here before us, from among us, are Rick and Steve.  Like any other couple they gather here to pledge their love and devotion to each other.  Family and friends join them to offer their love and support as well.  They will each give and receive rings as symbols of their promise.  They stand before us as a sacramental enfleshment, a symbiotic flow of self-giving love.  As Christ gives his life for the church, and the church gives its life for Christ, so Rick and Steve give themselves to each other. We, the church, will bless this marriage.

Let us not miss the significance of this blessing.  That finally, their church, a church that they have served and supported for so many years, is finally blessing them, finally fully embracing them.  Exclusion turns to embrace.  Rick and Steve, today the church, your church, finally fully acknowledges that we see you, see you as one flesh.  We bow in respect and celebration to your giftedness to this community of faith, to this broken world.  We acknowledge that we are only now catching up to you and others like you. We are only just now arriving breathlessly, to where you have rested for fourteen years.  We are blessing what God has already and always blessed, and that is love.  And as we bless you, as you have blessed us these many years, may we continue this ministry of blessing, a ministry of embracing and loving the entire human family, the hurt, the hungry, the poor, the broken, the excluded.  May we be counted among the peaceable, the meek, the pure of heart, the kind and the compassionate.  May we do this until all know their own blessedness, that they are beloved children of God.  And may we do this in the name of God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer of all that is blessed.  Amen.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in St. John’s, NL. This sermon was preached at the first same-sex marriage in the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland & Labrador, and the first in the Anglican Church of Newfoundland & Labrador. All three Anglican Dioceses in the province – the Diocese of  Western Newfoundland, the Diocese of  Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Diocese of Central Newfoundland – have voted to allow marriage equality within the Church. A blessing in the truest sense of the word!

Francis, Jesus and Greta: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Creation

St. Francis

To most of his contemporaries Francesco Bernadone was a religious nut, a madman. For the elites of his day he was dangerous, a threat to their cushy status quo. Even some villagers would throw rocks and dirt at him and his associates. Women often locked themselves in their houses at the sight of this shoeless, itinerant preacher dressed in a dirty robe with a simple rope belt. His wildly animated sermons and strange demeanour made them very uncomfortable.

But it wasn’t always this way for Francesco. He was a typical turn of the millennium, Italian playboy. He came from a wealthy merchant-class family. He traveled with his father, Pietro, on business trips to Paris and other cultured European cities. He was known to get around with an entourage, spending his days and fortune on fine wine, clothes and women. He was also up for adventure. In his early twenties he went off to war with a neighbouring village riding the finest horse and dressed in the finest military regalia. His side lost and he was taken prisoner. He languished in a rat-infested prison for a year before his father ransomed his release.

In that cold, dark prison cell something broke in Francesco. He came out a changed man. His family began to worry about him. Neighbours whispered behind his back that poor Pietro’s son had lost his marbles. They clucked their tongues and said that Francesco was out of his mind. To be fair to them, he gave them every good reason to think this way.

When his father brought him before the bishop to talk some sense into his increasingly zealous son, and only heir, Francis stripped naked and folded his expensive clothes in a pile at his father’s feet. He walked away from his family and fortune, embracing instead a life of poverty and prayer. The people thought he was a radical.

When Francesco literally embraced the plague-ridden peasants on the outskirts of his village they thought he was foolish. They thought this not so much because they feared contagion, but because they believed the sickness to be a result of sin and divine judgment.

When he preached sermons to predatory wolves and song birds, all the while saying that his animal audience listened to his sermons more than any of his human listeners, they thought he was off his rocker.

And when others started to follow him, taking on his ways of poverty, begging, preaching, trusting only in God’s care like the lilies of the field and birds of the air, the people said they had lost their minds too.

It didn’t bother Francesco when they said these things. He would just laugh and say that yes, he was a fool, fool enough to believe that Jesus meant the things that he said, and that his disciples ought to live as Jesus said they should. Most of all Francesco believed in the removal of barriers…barriers between us and God, barriers between rich and poor, barriers between humans and the rest of the created order. He knew that possessions, privilege and greed were indeed barriers that keep us from trusting in God’s care, seeing God’s presence in the beauty of creation, and embracing our responsibility to care for the poorest among us. It was too much for a church that thrived on barriers, walls and seeing themselves as gatekeepers to God and salvation.

Oh, they eventually came around. Just two years after his death Francesco was canonized, becoming St. Francis of Assisi. Of course, they cleaned him up and watered down his teachings. The order of brothers that he had formed grew in wealth, and Francis’ bones were interred in a huge, opulent cathedral. The radical prophet had been domesticated.

What is it about figures like Francis that make it so hard for us to listen to them and to change our lives accordingly? Keep in mind that Francis had reoriented his life around Jesus, the radical first-century Jewish preacher.

Don’t think Jesus was a radical? He, too, was accused by his own family of being out of his mind. The elites of his day also didn’t like what Jesus had to say. He stirred up the people. Just look at what Jesus says in the Gospel reading today:

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5: 43-48)

It’s hard enough to love our neighbours, folks we know, live among and have a vested interest in, but our enemies – you’ve got to be kidding. How can I put my enemies’ needs ahead of my own? That’s just not fair!

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.

“Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

“Blessed are the poor.”

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” It’s difficult because Jesus is difficult. He challenges us to do hard things, to see our lives and the lives of others in a new light. And he calls us to – gasp – change! To change our way of living to make the world better, more loving, more just. Jesus is not just making suggestions but pointing us to the demands of living in the Kingdom of God. His point is that we can’t just offer to God sacrifices that cost us nothing. The mark of a life lived in God’s kingdom, God’s economy, is a changed life and a changed social order.

Sadly, I often just don’t get this about Jesus. I treat him like a poster boy for my own ideology, his cross nothing more than a good luck charm. All the while I ignore what he’s actually saying to me. His words flow from my mouth but do not penetrate my heart. I claim his words as my own, but leave his actions for someone else.

If we’re honest with ourselves we all do this, and not just with Jesus. We did it with St. Francis. We did it with Martin Luther King Jr., forgetting that he was vilified as a radical in his day for calling into question not only race, but also capitalism and militarism. Today he has his own holiday and his face appears on postage stamps and internet memes. But do we really listen to him?

As we wrap up the Season of Creation, Francis is an appropriate figure for us to reflect upon. Especially as new prophetic voices arise, voices like Greta Thunberg and the legion of young people she has inspired to rally for climate justice. They hold before us our wanton disregard of creation and of their futures. They are begging us to change our ways, to make the world cleaner, more just and equitable. They call us to see ourselves as we really are, another species in an intricate web of life we call ecosystems. Will we listen or will we turn Greta into a climate celebrity, start a foundation in her name, but go on living as we always have?

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It’s hard not to hear the echo of Francis in what they are saying. Yes, Francis would root his view of creation in a loving God, who is the source of all life and therefore speaks to us everywhere and in everything. But Francis’ legacy of compassion, humility, peace and care for creation lives on in them. Francis, like Jesus before him, along with Dr. King, Ghandi, Mother Theresa and all the prophets of God down through the ages, call us to love. Love of God, love of neighbour, love of God’s creation – which we neglect at our neighbour’s peril. Love is still radical, counter-cultural and will earn you all kinds of labels: weakling, naïve, old-fashioned, foolish, out of your mind. But if there is any hope for the world it is to be found in love.

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

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

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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.

 

Futurefitting the Church: Part Two

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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?