Three Birthdays: A sermon for Pentecost

Here is today’s sermon for Pentecost. Three Birthdays

Messy Church

The persecution that took place under Diocletian (303-313) was especially severe in North Africa. As a result, the question of how or whether to re-admit Christians to worship who had recanted their faith, was a very difficult pastoral question, especially when they were priests or even bishops.

Some insisted that lapsed believers could not return, or if they could, only after a protracted and public period of repentance. Priests and Bishops, if readmitted to the community, could never return to their former roles. Others were more lenient. After a period of repentance, mercy and forgiveness should determine the course. Priests and Bishops could also return to their ministries.

By the time of the fifth century, the positions had become so polarized that the North African Church split into two competing churches. On the one side, the Donatists insisted that the Church, and especially its leaders, must be pure. On the other, the Catholics held that before the kingdom of God came in its fullness, a certain amount of messiness was unavoidable.

St. Augustine was convinced by his reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), that the Church would never be pure until the Final Judgment. Until then she would be a mixture of sinners and saints, people resisting grace and resting in it. Communities should not be too quick to judge who’s in or not, even among the leadership.

I wonder whether some of my friends on the religious right and the red-letter left could learn from Augustine’s reluctance to rush to judgment. On just about every hot-button issue today, we find Christians divided amongst ourselves. To our collective shame, we far too easily call down the judgment of God on those who disagree with us. We do so with particular verve in social media, where one’s enemies are anonymous and therefore demonized—that word is used deliberately–much more easily.

We act in this way because we want a pure church. We want to presume upon the judgment of God; we want to short-circuit the path to the Day of Judgment. We want, if I may put it more provocatively, to present God with a holy Church of our own making all the while refusing to receive the holiness that is God’s gift in Christ to his Church. We act this way because we are sinners as much as our opponents are.

Already I can hear my neo-Donatist critics sharpening their rhetorical swords. “Christians should not tolerate [insert preferred ideological opponent here]! We need to exercise discipline! We need to call them to repentance!” I have no answer to that, because I largely agree. When the behaviour of believers become a scandal to their unbelieving neighbors, the Church needs to discern the source of the scandal. If the scandal is rooted in fidelity to the Gospel (as with Stephen in Acts), then the Church celebrates this believer as a prophet, or a saint, or possibly a martyr. If the scandal is rooted in persistent sinfulness (as with the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians), then the Church disciplines even to the point of exclusion from the community.

Here’s my point: what is lost in so much debate today is precisely the wisdom and time needed to discern. We want to identify who’s right, and who’s not and pass sentence right away. But that is not how the Church should work. Discipline working rightly recognizes that every situation is different, and even someone caught in serious sin (like those who lapse under persecution) may need restoration with a gentle hand rather than condemnation.

So before you share that next meme that so skewers Focus on the Family or Sojourners, ChristianWeek or Geez, for their latest failure, remember Augustine and the Donatists. Leave room for the Church to be messy. Leave room for the Church to discern. Leave room for the judgment of God.

Ascension, Abandonment and Intercession

It was a gift to be able to preach and serve at both services at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto this past Sunday. Here is the text of my sermon.

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This past Wednesday, I enjoyed spending some time with the Society of Mary, talking with them about the place of Mary in Luke’s Gospel. And I, as all public speakers do these days, tried to sell some books afterwards. Since we were on the threshold of Ascensiontide, one of the books I brought with me was a little devotional my brother Aaron and I wrote about this wonderful event. One of the listeners picked up the book and asked me, “Will this book make me like the Ascension?”  What a great question! Well, it prompted one of my own. “Why don’t you like the Ascension?” I asked. “It leaves me feeling abandoned.”

I get that. There are times in our lives as disciples of Jesus when we might feel profoundly alone, wishing, if this is not too crass, that we had a cellphone number. Direct encounters with Jesus, at least before the kingdom comes in its fullness, are the unique provenance of mystics and saints. I don’t know about you, but I am not a mystic. And while I am, I pray, on my way to sanctification, I have never been “caught up into the third heaven,” as St. Paul was.

So I get the feeling of abandonment that my new friend spoke of. Do you, too? And like her, that loneliness is sharpest for me in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.

On the threshold of his departure from the world, the Lord Jesus knew that feelings of loneliness and abandonment would be a returning trope in the lives of his disciples. Not just the twelve or the extended company who travelled with them, but all those whom the Father had given him, as he describes the people for whom he prays in our Gospel lesson. All of them.  All includes my friend. All includes me. All includes, well, all of us. The Lord Jesus himself, in his humanity, prayed for us on the verge of his departure. He continues, in that now ascended humanity, to pray for us before the throne of his Father. And that is good news. Let’s explore it further.

What does Jesus pray for us who live between the already of his ascension into heaven and the not yet of the final transformation of ourselves and all creation?

He prays, first of all, that the Father protect his disciples that they may be one even as he and his father are one.  His words call to mind the powerful image that was developed in our Gospel lessons for the previous two weeks: that of the true vine. You remember the image, which accentuates how the life of discipleship is an organic union with Jesus such that the divine life flows through him—the vine—into us—the branches. In this way, we participate, we share in God’s own life, we are deified. And through our sharing in that life, we are fruitful and we are “pruned” to become more fruitful. And the fruitfulness Jesus describes here is the fruitfulness of a faithful disciple.

When Jesus prays for us that we be protected, and that in that protection we might be one, he prays that his disciples would remain united to him, and in that union, we remain united to each other.  Jesus prays this way because, he says, he is leaving the world and his disciples are not, or at least not yet. And in his absence, if the joy of the disciples is to be complete, if the disciples are to rest in the protection of God, if they would continue the mission of bringing the life of God to the world, they will need to be protection.

This is not the only request the Son makes to the Father for us. Here is the second. I ask that you not take them out of the world, I ask that you protect them from the evil one. The protection that is continuing in the life of God that comes to us through the Lord Jesus is protection from the evil one. We are not accustomed to thinking or speaking in this way. This parish church lives on a lovely street in a city noted around the world for its, well, dullness. Very little bad happens in Toronto. And so it is that we might regard Jesus’ words here with a little confusion. For so many of us the world is basically a good place. Oh we have our challenges, but we would not cast them as attacks from the enemy of our souls.

Is that true for you? It is for me. But here’s the thing: it is not true for the majority of the followers of the Lord Jesus around the world today. It is truly tragic that most of our media sources leave the global persecution of our brothers and sisters underreported. Some, worse, sensationalize it. But there are a few that tell the truth. (If I may commend a book here, the title is Christianophobia and the author is Rupert Shortt, the biographer of the former Archbishop, Rowan Williams). If Jesus prays for his disciples that they be protected from the evil one while they remain in the world, it is because they need such prayers.

Here’s the nugget—if we are united to God, and through that union to each other, and if in that union we bring the life of God to the world, we will need to be protected from the hostility provoked. And so we add our prayers today to the prayer of the Lord Jesus for those of our brethren who, so much more than us, need his protection from the evil one today.

To the two requests for protection, Jesus adds a third: that his followers be made holy by the truth of the Father’s Word. The notion of holiness here is not some mystical quality, but simply means separateness or otherness. Jesus prays that by the truth of the word, his followers would be kept separate from the world. Of course, the connection to the previous requests is clear isn’t it? And there is a deeper one.  Who is the Father’s Word in the Gospel of John? None other than the Lord Jesus who spke of himself as the truth. Jesus prays that, by his own life flowing in us, we would be drawn into the truth, we would be protected from the world, we would be made holy.

It is hard not to work our way through this part of Jesus’s prayer for us and not feel a sense of dislocation, otherness from the world. And so we are wise to remember that the world which the Lord Jesus left in his Ascension, the world in which we remain, the world which is acknowledged by the Lord as a place of hostility both for himself and those who would follow him, is also the world that the Father loves, the world to which the Son was sent, the world to which we who are in the Son are also sent.

Have we been abandoned? It may well seem like it in this time between the times, in the tension between the already victory of Jesus and the not yet consummation of his kingdom. But we remain united to him who even now prays for our protection and sanctification, who lives his life through us, and who calls us out into the world that he loves. And in that mission, we are never alone.

 

May Festival Sermon, May 16, 2015.

Last Saturday, I was privileged to be the preacher at the May Festival Mass held at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto. I am grateful to Fr. Rob for his invitation and to Fr Mark and the people of St. Thomas’s for their kindness. Here is the text of my sermon.

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She was present when the hour was not yet. Perhaps knowing that her Son could fix the problem, perhaps expressing an embarrassed desire that he and his little band of followers leave, the mother of Jesus came and told him, “They have no wine.” And to that ambiguous statement came the even more ambiguous answer, “What to you and to me, woman? My hour is not yet.” She was present, but The hour was not yet.

The first disciples too were present when the wine at the wedding banquet ran short, when the mother of Jesus boldly instructed the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it!” perhaps they overheard and began to watch. Whatever prompted them to pay attention, the disciples saw when the water pots were filled to the brim, and tasted when those same pots produced the very best wine. In this way, ends the story of Jesus’s first miracle at Cana, he revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. They were also present, but the hour was not yet.

What was the glory revealed at the wedding? The glory disclosed when the water changed to wine? Was it some sort of profane appropriation of a pagan miracle story of the God Dionysus? Some rather red-faced scholars have worried so. But no, their fears are misplaced. This is not some feeble syncretism. The glory disclosed at the Cana wedding was the glory of the end-time banquet when, out of God’s inexhaustible plenty, the new wine would be poured out. This is the language of the latter chapters of the book of the prophet Isaiah, not an appropriation of Greek mythology. The miracle heralded the hour when  God would be joined to creation in a nuptial union to which every human marriage bears often-all-too-feeble witness, and all would be well. But the hour was not yet. The glory was glimpsed, but it was not yet there.

When our Gospel for this festival day opens, however, the hour has arrived. The hour of the glory. The hour of banquet. The hour of end-time joy. We know because she is present. The mother of Jesus again is there. We know because the disciples are there. Present in Mary of Clopas, Mary the Magdalene, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. And yet, this is no day of glory. All the disciples but these four scattered as blood, not wine, was spilled. This was no nuptial day, no day of union, no day of joy. This was a day of death. A day of rending.  A day of grief.

But John bids us look more closely. At this very hour, the mother of Jesus is present. Her presence calls to mind the wedding and its promise, its glimpse of glory. Her presence calls us to see the full disclosure of the glory of God’s one and only son, who was with God, who was God from the beginning, through whom all things were made.  Here at the cross, the glory which was the Son’s from all eternity is seen. This was the glory to which the writer testified when he wrote, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” The wedding pointed to it. But the cross, there on the cross, is the glory of the one and only Son. She was present when the hour was not yet. She was present when the hour came.

The disciples were present too, present in the three Marys and especially in the person of the disciple whom Jesus loved. They too, who with Mary glimpsed the glory in the beginning, were beholding the awful glory at the end. They were present when the hour was not yet. They were present when the hour came.

How do we know this horrific scene is at the very same time a day of glory? How do we know that this day of death brings life, this day of rending brings union? Listen.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing with her, he said to his mother, ‘Here is your son.’ Then he said to his disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”

It is very tempting to sentimentalize those words. Here is Jesus, whether because the only Son of the Father was also the only Son of Mary, or because his brothers rejected him and his mother for following him (both readings are found in Christian history), here is Jesus doing what every good Jewish boy should. His dying act was to care for his mother. He effected an adoption of sorts by which the mother of Jesus would be cared for by his faithful beloved disciple. It is a tissues-and-Hallmark moment,

But is that all this is? As with every element of the fourth Gospel, there is much more going on. After all, are we not told, “And from that hour the disciple too her into his home?” The hour. The hour for which the Son of Man came (John 12) is accomplished in this dying act of entrustment.  The hour of glory was not yet at the wedding. The hour of glory came when the Son of Man was lifted up upon the cross. And from that hour a new family was created.

This is no mere recording of history (though it is that). The evangelist is showing us in his story that the glory is not simply the death of Jesus, but that in his death a new family—a family made up of his mother and disciple—is created. The cross is the place where the church is born. And so in death we do have life, in the rending of body and soul, we have the union of God with creation and the reunion of the fellowship of humanity, in grief we have great joy. For the end-time banquet is indeed about to begin. The new wine is about to be drunk. Soon, all will be well.

And, to underscore the point, John tells us, “After this, when Jesus knew ALL WAS NOW FINISHED, he said, ‘I thirst.’” From that hour, all was now finished. At the adoption effected by the cross, the glory of the one and only Son was disclosed in the creation of a new community, the community in and through which the reunion of God and the cosmos would take place.

So it is, at this festival Mass, that we are wise to remember our Marian days are not really about Mary. For Mary always and ever directs our gaze away from her to her Son and reminds us that it is in his cross, and in the adoption it effects, we are gathered together. It is in the cross on which he died that we have life. It is from the cross that he bids us take his mother into our homes, so that in loving her we may come more fully to love him. It is to the cross that she directs our gaze and says, “See the glory of my one and only, your Saviour and mine.”

Amen.

Algoma Synod Day #2The

The second day (and first full day) of Synod began at 8:00 with worship led by the Rev. Ed Swayze and with Primate Fred delivering the homily. The Primate was simple and searching in his reflection on Matthew 6, and Jesus’s injunctions on fasting, prayer and almsgiving. The Primate focused on the relationship between authentic gratitude and humility. It was an excellent orientation to a full day.

Following worship, the Bishop gave a charge to Synod oriented around building partnerships with the Diocese of Big Beaver House and Bishop Lydia, building partnerships with the Diocese of Tarime and Bishop Mwite, and the Lift Up Your Heart initiative following the conclusion of the strategic plan. There was far too much in each point to fairly summarize here. I am bringing home a copy of the charge to share with you and hope that I will have an electronic version to distribute broadly. Suffice to say that at each point we were called to an expanded vision of generosity, including (but certainly not limited to) our money. We will be implementing the Lift Up Your Heart initiative through the month of September. Please watch for special updates in ETW about this important initiative.

The morning concluded with a report on the Tarime trip made by a delegation led by +Stephen and Fawna and a final exercise from the Strategic Planning Committee to help them advise the Executive Committee on ways to continue developing the work begun with the S.P. as we move into the future.

After lunch, I attended two breakout sessions. One, again, dealt with the winding down of the current Strategic Plan and building on it for the future. The discussions were particularly concerned with Youth ministry and its ongoing importance in our deaneries. This will be an interesting conversation for Executive to take up. There seemed to be a consensus that Youth work should be funded, even as we also agreed that a uniform pattern of funding and job descriptions across the deaneries might not be the most effective way of ensuring the continuation of good ministries. We’ll see. . . . I also expressed a concern that at least some of the resources recouped from the closure of parishes and the sale of buildings be set aside for new ministries, and especially church planting. Again, we’ll see how that goes.

The second breakout session was led by +Stephen and was a reflection on the repeated cycle of sin–grace–faith in the Prayer Book Holy Communion service. It was, as you can imagine, an intense and important time to meditate on how the pattern of our worship is meant to inspire gratitude toward God for his great gift to us by the Spirit who draws us into the life of Christ. A particular stress for +Stephen (and following from his charge) is that the sacrament can never be divorced from Word read and proclaimed. Without the Word, the sacrament is a mute sign. I think he’s right.

After a quick dinner with Jay to talk more about church planting, I went with the delegates to Algoma U. for a tour of the archives, the residential school, and the chapel. It was a very good (and plain spoken) articulation of our history, warts and all.

Well, my friends, that was today. Tomorrow, we are into a legislative session. Hopefully not too tense. We’ll see. . . .

Tim

Algoma Synod Day #1

We arrived at the Water Tower Inn at 3:30 and checked in. Then, it was off to the Synod office beside the Cathedral of St. Luke to register for the big event!! After a lovely dinner at the Delta Hotel (with a fabulous view across the water) we walked back to the Cathedral where Rachel, Derek (our summer intern) and Aidan (the MacGregor Bay intern) took their pew and I vested for a very long (and very, very hot) ordination service.

It was a BCP service and was excellent. The Ven. Peter Smyth (Algoma) was the emcee and +Stephen presided. Primate Fred Hiltz is with us all week as our Bible Study leader. Tonight, he gave the sermon–a rousing reflection on mission, which embodied all that was best about the Anglican tradition–Gospel proclamation issuing in works of justice and mercy–and all that is, um, not so best–Gospel proclamation is works of justice and mercy. This is a hard balance for the very best homilists to strike and I do not wish to judge the Primate too harshly. For the weakness is not his, but is woven through Anglican piety. It is our besetting sin. Ah, “til we shall build Jerusalem in [Canada’s] green and pleasant land.” A hymn sadly Pelagian from top to bottom all-too-accurately expresses what happens when Anglicans go theologically wobbly.

I am grateful to the Primate for his emphasis on mission, however, and thrilled that Gospel proclamation did indeed make it into his homily. For that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. Without the preaching of the crucified and risen Lord, ascended to the right hand of the Father as the King of the Universe, we really are just the Kinsmen in fancy dress.

This was my first Book of Common Prayer Ordination. What a heavy service in every stretch! (A huge thanks to James Mosher, our newest Deacon, who asked for a BCP service. A King’s College Halifax man, this can hardly be surprising). The charges to James and Charlene were weighty and appropriately reflected the challenges of the ministries to which they are now ordained. I found myself at once wishing that I could have been charged with those words back in 2009-10 and wondering whether, had I been, I could have gone through with the rest of the service. It really was powerful!

The business begins tomorrow with a full agenda of largely  “house-keeping” motions that will tidy up some canons and hopefully make them consistent. We’ll see if anything interesting comes from the floor. I’m on the resolutions committee so you’ll know soon enough!

Hey, follow us on Facebook, whether on my page or at Epiphany Sudbury, and keep abreast of things on Twitter, @RevTimPerry. Everything will be under the hashtag, #AlgomaSynod2015. Shaping up to be a good time.

In all seriousness, please pray for us as we seek to discern God’s will for our Diocese as we end one strategic plan and enter into a year of Thanksgiving under the theme “Lift Up Your Hearts.” Pray especially for the Epiphany delegates, Gilles and Remi, who are thrilled to be here, but nervous too.

Blessings

Tim

The Source of Life

Sunday’s sermon is now up here: The Source of Life

Then What?

My last column argued that evangelical communities in Canada are not persecuted. To say so not only mocks the actual persecution of many Christians around the world, but also pushes otherwise sympathetic people away from our concerns, and, frankly, makes us look ridiculous. The Gospel is offensive enough on its own; we don’t need to help it along by behaving foolishly ourselves!

Does that mean that the discomfort many of us now experience is based on imaginary events? Certainly not.

In his book An Anxious Age, the American public intellectual Joseph Bottum, accounts for the current cultural climate in the United States, though with obvious parallels to Canada for readers north of the border. Bottum argues that those who set the cultural agenda are re-shaping institutions according to their moral convictions—as, in fact, they have always done. What marks them out from previous generations is not their “post-Christian” cultural vision—that has been true for nearly 50 years. Rather, it is the evangelical zeal with which the vision is pursued that is different. The once muted rhetoric of the “city on a hill” is now back, but the civil Christianity from which it was originally derived is gone. Provocatively, Bottum names this group the “elect,” highlighting that in demeanour, if not in religious content, the new culture shapers are very much like their Puritan ancestors.

Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, has coined the term “Megalothymia,” (the compulsive need to feel morally superior to others) to label the mindset that underlies the activism. The “elect” must not only be right; they must be seen to be right. As a result, those groups or individuals perceived to be out of step are not merely mistaken, but morally suspect as well: objects first of pity, then scorn, and finally, sanction. What I called “soft discrimination” in my last column.

If Bottum and Fukuyama can help the Canadian evangelical community to get a sense of what is going on, how should we respond? I’d like to suggest a two-step approach.

First imagine the worst possible future and trust in God anyway.

Here’s how Francis Cardinal George of Chicago described such a future in 2010: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” The quote has been making the rounds following George’s death on April 17.

The Cardinal’s point was not that events will unfold this way, but that if they do, the Church will still be present, seasoning society with the Gospel, and even watering society’s soil with martyrs’ blood. Why? Because it’s Jesus’s Church. Cardinal George makes me wonder how much of our rhetoric reveals a fear for the future. How much of that fear reflects a lack of trust in God? Can we not trust, that even if the worst possible future comes to pass, God will care for his own? No matter the future, that future belongs to God.

Second, take note of the present and live faithfully and fully in it.

St. Gianna Molla put it best: “As to the past, let us entrust it to God’s mercy, the future to divine providence. Our task is to live holy in the present moment.” I understand her to say, there is no point pining for past privilege, even as there is no value in worrying for a future that belongs to God. To pine and to fret are distractions from the mission of holy living here and now. They are, in short, sins.

And if  in some dystopian future whether near or far, we are called to suffer (as so many of our brothers and sisters outside North America have been and are now) hopefully, we’ll rejoice that we will have been counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41). Until that day . . . .

Sermon: The Good Shepherd

We were thrilled to have +Stephen Andrews with us for our annual episcopal visit today. Bishop Stephen confirmed my daughter, Sara and baptized Anne. This is his sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday: The Good Shepherd

Does Your Heart Burn?

Here’s today’s sermon. Quite a motley crew of characters–Cleopas and his companion, Frodo and Sam, Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle and Lucy Pevensie all show up. A very Inkling sermon indeed! Does Your Heart Burn?