Homily for the First Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2011
AND EMBRACING THE PILGRIMAGE OF NEW LIFE
When I was a boy growing up in Regina, we had home milk and bread delivery, we had house calls from our doctor, there was almost no TV, there were no organized sports or stores open on Sundays, churches were centres of life and of neighbourhoods, we knew our neighbours not just on either side but for blocks, there was freedom to roam, and there were few locked doors.
As a new priest, in the early 1980’s, I realized a new era had dawned, as insurance companies ruled that churches had to keep their doors locked at all times, or their insurance coverage would be null and void. Many who were accustomed to the “Enter, rest and pray” approach that had prevailed in churches until then protested this harsh approach, but the fact was that many churches, especially rural ones, were being cleaned out, burned, and desecrated, and stolen stained glass windows, church organs and brass crosses were turning up in antique stores all over. So now they’re all locked, and it is naive to think we could do otherwise. Diana Butler-Bass, in her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, says “when I was seven or eight, I used to walk … from home to school to the public library to the florist shop, and finally, to the church – by myself.” She speaks of the Hamilton area of Baltimore (especially Harford Road) where she grew up. Now, if you were to speak of letting your child do that, you’d be considered grossly irresponsible and possibly have Social Services intervening.
This massive cultural shift is part of virtually everyone’s story one way or another. As Butler-Bass says, “We have all become wanderers in a very different world … Old Harford Road is gone, completely gone.”
She speaks of an emerging “spiritual nomad” culture, in which many people have become spiritual wanderers, pilgrims, seekers. That is in part what the Garden of Eden story is about – the loss of innocence, a new age dawning, and the painful departure from an ideal place into a very different and demanding world. As Butler-Bass says: “A new world was being birthed in massive cultural fragmentation and emerging global chaos . . . We know that some sort of new world is emerging … but we have no idea of what it is becoming.”
In recent years Christians have been vilified about their history. To many people it is nothing but a series of crusades and witch hunts and various kinds of abuse. But many of us remember a different history: of fellow church members and clergy who were not only good, decent and caring people but also profoundly holy; of the church as a meeting place and going to church as an assured way to connect with God; of Christianity not just as some weird hobby but as a way of life. Dr Butler-Bass speaks of a whole generation of people not even vaguely familiar with the Christian story – even its most basic aspects. She speaks of the church valiantly trying things and not being able to reach this new generation.
Dr. Butler-Bass speaks poignantly of the church where she was baptized, struggling to find its way in this changed and troubling new world. (p. 20) I know of so many churches in that same boat – not sure what they’ve ever done wrong, confused as to why they have been abandoned, and grieving – grieving the loss not just of the people they used to associate with in church, but of a whole way of life.
The good old days are gone, and at times I miss them. Like many others, I too find the new world confusing and frightening at times, but I also find it fascinating and wonderful. Butler-Bass paints a picture of the old world of community, where people were neighbours in some real sense, where people shared common values, where there were mutually agreed upon and respected boundaries and securities – things we used to take for granted. It’s a delightful vision of an idyllic time. We can lament the loss of that world, but as Butler-Bass indicates, despite its charms, some part of her always yearned for it to change.
How tempting it is to idealize the past – to try to dwell there instead of consenting to engage the new emerging world and the spiritual seekers who come with it. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke: How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Seven. One to change the bulb and six to reminisce about how great the old one was. The past is a bit of a fiction anyway – the word utopia means “nowhere.” We can only be where we are, and although we have a story and traditions, they are of little value if they cannot be embodied in a relevant and compelling new way.
It says of Adam and Eve that their eyes were opened, and they suddenly saw beyond the world in which they had been born. That is interpreted by some as a curse – as a penalty for disobedience – as an expression of sin. But I believe God did not create Adam and Eve (that is, men and women) to be perpetual children, and Eden is not meant to symbolize some kind of perpetual day care. At some point, as the serpent knew, we must begin to see more comprehensively. Human life is a pilgrimage not a settlement.
Butler-Bass references the movie The Village in which people who wanted to escape the modern world create an old-fashioned village in the wilderness, and then do everything in their power to terrify people into staying put. The movie is a sign of the necessity of pushing past old walls, dealing with reality, and moving into a new and larger world – of the impossibility of trying to re-create Eden, which is a temporary place at best.
As Christendom lost its influence, our eyes too opened to new realities. We suddenly became aware of a whole lot of other options and lifestyles out there. As Christians, many of us felt betrayed and abandoned by our neighbours and by a society which no longer made an effort to include the church in the way things were ordered. We realized that perhaps there were people among us — Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and Buddhists, not to mention aboriginal people – who did not share our version of the way things should be. We could no longer assume that Christianity was the only way or even the right way, and now it is seen as a way, one way among many ways.
How to respond creatively to this new age?
Butler-Bass says: “When most scholars look at mainline Protestantism, they explore issues of decline. Why are churches failing?” She says: “I am interested in other questions. Why do some succeed? How are those churches finding new life in a time of religious change? … What does their vitality mean for the rest of us?” p. 9
When Butler Bass speaks of Christianity “for the rest of us” – she means “the other Christians. The ones you don’t hear about in the media. The quiet ones.” She means those of us who are neither evangelical fundamentalists nor Roman Catholics. She means those historical mainline churches that operate from a moderate to liberal theological foundation. She undertook a study of a large number of those churches and she found life – much more life than she expected to find.
In each place Diana Butler Bass examined, she found what she calls a “spiritual triad”: connection to tradition; commitment to Christian practices; and concern to live God’s dream. Part of our repentance may be to acknowledge that for a long time the Anglican Church just drifted complacently along, and developed a kind of amnesia, in which we forgot what our traditions really mean, and forgot what it truly means to be the church. As Butler-Bass says we must realize, “ [we can] no longer assume that people [are] Christians – and that church [cannot] serve as a social-service institution, a political party, or a business.” As Butler-Bass discovered, many of the churches she studied have re-vitalized due to “a new emphasis on spiritual practice and Christian tradition.” (p. 43), and she says: “The primary job of a church is to be a spiritual community that forms people in faith” (p. 42). She discovered from her study that: “Mainline churches decline when they neglect scripture and prayer, discernment and hospitality, contemplation and justice.” (p. 45)
The Ministry Assessment Process (MAP) which we are undertaking as a parish and as part of our diocese, is asking us to look at where we’ve come from, but more importantly, where we think we’re going.
The mainline churches throughout North America have been going through a period of self-doubt, characterized by blaming, discouragement, struggle and confusion (you can add your own words), but this may turn out to be a fruitful time, a necessary “dark night of the soul.” Isn’t Lent about self-examination? Doesn’t Lent remind us that periodic times of self-discipline and renewal are essential to our spiritual health? Maybe being marginalized in our society isn’t the worst thing – maybe it frees us to become more truly what we are meant to be – maybe it encourages us to become less complacent about our faith, and more intentional about developing spirituality and creating disciples.
She suggests that many churches have stalled, fixated on differentiating themselves not only from society but from other Christian churches, yet she found that many are beginning to move again with new life. She points to the great gulf fixed between Evangelical fundamentalism and secular scepticism, and the divisive labelling of people as saints or sinners, and she argues for a way between the extremes – “a creative third way.” She says: “Creative third ways provide open spaces amid cultural questions and tensions. Typically, such open spaces are found in congregations that value comprehensiveness over exclusion” (p. 35). And she describes a pastor by the name of Lillian Daniel who “embodies a blended sort of Christian theology and spirituality that draws from deep wells of tradition and yet is generously open to change and the remaking of those very traditions” (p. 34). She points to the possibility of a church that is comprehensive, that includes both saint and sinner, darkness and light, a church that reclaims its place of significance in the community by creatively invoking the presence of God, re-kindling the fire of the Spirit, and becoming committed to the way of Christ with a new integrity and intention.
In my Annual Report I spoke of Anglicans as being spiritual and religious and it’s kind of reassuring that Butler-Bass uses exactly the same description. She spoke also of something else dear to my heart as an Anglican: of our characteristic of being less fixated on doctrine and definition but serious about encountering the living God in prayer and sacrament and the fellowship of the Body of Christ. Anglicanism is a beautiful synthesis of reason and faith; head and heart; conviction and mystery (p. 51). These are gifts we already have, and these gifts are not meant to be buried in the past, but raised to new life and offered to a world becoming overwhelmed with alienation, violence and cynicism. We can be that “creative third way.”
Her final stop in the study happened to be on Ash Wednesday, at an Anglican church in Santa Barbara, California. The priest, in her sermon, said that “Lent is about change – the change that God can make in ourselves, in our faith communities and in the larger world. Lent is a time that opens our hearts to transformation, to becoming God’s people and doing that which God calls us to do.” She concluded her sermon by saying: “Transformation is the promise at the heart of Christian life” (p. 281).
I have tried to distill Dr. Butler-Bass’s Introduction, first three chapters, and Epilogue. These chapters offer strong reminders that Christianity is meant to be an adventure, and that it is not weird to be enthusiastic about being a Christian. Her focus on transformation is all very consistent with the season of Lent, and maybe we can dare to hope that this Lent, the Spirit is leading us into unknown and unexplored places with some mysterious intention, for reasons we cannot comprehend, and all we can do is respond faithfully to the summons to be there, to engage the struggle, as Jesus did, to await what God might reveal, and trust that God will sustain us on our pilgrimage, wherever it may lead us.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
A prayer for this Lenten journey:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, the shepherd of your people, their pillar of cloud by day, their pillar of fire by night. In these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance that in this pilgrimage of prayer we might learn to be your people once more. In meditation and reflection, fasting and service you bring us back to your compassionate heart. You open our eyes to your presence in the world and you free our hands to lead others to the radiant splendour of your mercy. Inspire us to be still and centered in these Lenten days, that we may know you are with us, and with you present, we are never lost, for you are the Source of life. To you alone be dominion and glory, for ever and ever. Amen
Appointed readings for this Sunday:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Romans 5:12-19 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
What did you hear in this homily – what spoke to you?
Do you recognize the cultural shift Butler-Bass names? What’s that like for you?
Is faith about asking questions or finding answers?
Do you relate to the idea of being a spiritual nomad?
What would that spiritual triad (connection to tradition; commitment to Christian practices; and concern to live God’s dream) look like at St. John’s?
Is transformation the promise at the heart of Christian life? Is it the promise at the heart of what we are about here at St John’s?