Homily for Epiphany 3

Homily for Epiphany 3/January 24, 2016

The Venerable Grant Rodgers

A month ago we were singing Christmas carols! It seems hard to believe, but it’s an indication of how quickly time moves on, and a reminder that life itself moves along very quickly, which in turn raises a question of what we’re doing with our lives.

The poet Mary Oliver, reflecting this sense of how quickly it all passes by, asked: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Good question!

We ask a lot of questions when we conduct a Baptism, questions of intention and purpose and personal integrity – questions relating to the kind of community they are being invited to form. We examine people because we want them to be aware of what they are committing to and why, and in so doing we remind ourselves of the importance and place of this commitment and have an opportunity to re-examine ourselves, because most of you will not remember the questions that you were asked at your Baptism! (For most of you the best response you would have been able to make would have been a gurgle or perhaps a squawk and most of you have progressed well beyond that stage by now).

The Anglican Church is an including community – you don’t have to be perfect to be included and it is not expected that you will ever become perfect, though we have every expectation that you will be better for the experience, and we expect you to work at it, as well as staying open to the influence and guidance of God’s Spirit in your lives. Indeed, we believe God can make you not just good but great.

Jim Wallis, in The Call to Conversion says, “The greatest need of our time is for koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world. The creation of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local church level is the foundation of all the other answers.”
Because the Church models itself upon the examples that Jesus gave, and the ways his teaching were applied by people like St Paul, the Church is a community in which all members are valued, every member matters and can make a difference, and even the members we might tend to be most embarrassed about are not only valued but given greater honour.

This is a key principle. The Church is not a community that starts lopping off those members that don’t seem to work properly. A number of years ago I started having fainting episodes that came at the most disconcerting times – while playing hockey, or playing golf. After some exploration it was discovered I had a problem with my heart.

Now you’d think no one in their right mind would cut their heart out to save their body, but there are people who have cut off their own toes, legs, fingers, hands, arms, breasts, etc. in various states of mental illness, thinking they were dealing with a problem and somehow saving the essence of themselves. That’s one way of dealing with a problem. By the same token, a person who purposely ignores the pain in one part of their body, thinking that by refusing to deal with it or heed its message, they’ll be better off, would really be considered deranged.

In the context of the Church, we do not expect a newly baptized member to say “I have no need of all of you,” or to see themselves in opposition to the larger entity, and we would certainly not say that in return to a new member. In fact, during the liturgy we make a promise. The priest says: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” And we all say “We will.”

As a certain bishop said to me once upon a time, the people sitting around you in church are not incidental to your own salvation. We need community; we need each other; we must be about unity. It’s not just about us.

In the same spirit, the ACW can’t say to the Parish Council: We have no need of you; the priest can’t say to the deacons: I have no need of you; and the parish can’t say to the diocese: we have no need of you. And you would think that one province of the Anglican Communion would not say to another province: we have no need of you.

However, at a recent gathering of the Primates (the National Archbishops) of the Anglican Communion, and it would have been really helpful if they had paid some attention to this sentence from St Paul that we read today:
“the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect . . .” even when those members happen to believe it is a godly thing to include LGBTQ people in the fellowship of the Church. It seems to me you can’t just drop such important principles as Paul articulates simply because something becomes inconvenient or not to our personal liking.

That is just not how we do things in the Church, as long as we are claiming to be the Body of Christ in some meaningful way. As St Paul says: “For just as the human body is one entity despite having many members, and all the members of the body, though many and diverse, comprise one body, so it is with Christ.” We do need each other and we are in fact somewhat ridiculous and redundant without each other.

Years ago I went to a theological conference in the Maritimes, which was very good, except that all the speakers and presenters represented one particular strain of Anglicanism, a rather conservative and even reactionary strain, with much sounding off about liberals and radical elements in the church. It was an unbalanced, one-sided thing, like someone waltzing with themselves or a crazy person talking to himself in the isolation ward of an asylum.

When I returned home I wrote an article about the conference for the diocesan paper. In expressing disappointment about the fact that only certain kinds of voices were being heard, I used the ancient Buddhist example of “the sound of one hand clapping” because no meaningful sound was made, as only one side of the Anglican tradition was present. To really appreciate the sound of your hands clapping, you can’t have cut one hand off.

In the mainstream media, a Christian is often portrayed as an angry, defensive and rather ignorant person, the kind of person who doesn’t believe in evolution or thinks that science is nonsense; the kind of person who thinks women are not the equal of men and should in fact be subservient; the kind of person who is quick to condemn and short on tolerance, and because the media is so comprehensive, we all get tarred with the same brush. It seems to me this is a time to demonstrate a more compelling kind of Christian faith.

The Anglican Church came into its present state of being as part of the radical upheaval in Europe 500 years ago that is called the Protestant Reformation, when forward-minded and courageous theologians, scholars, bishops, priests, and even the odd monarch defied the entrenched conservatism and control of the Roman Catholic Church, and launched a new expression of the faith.

Since then our Anglican Church has given expression to a moderate, progressive, intelligent and evolving kind of Christianity – catholic but reformed; deeply faithful and sharply intelligent at the same time. Anglicans have not been characterized as being expected to check our brains at the door when we come to church – until recently anyway.

We have tried to be as faithful to the present and the future as we are to the past. Anglicans have always tried to be centered and balanced, rather than drifting to ideological extremes. The Anglican Church is now present in something like 160 countries and as Wikipedia says, “with a membership currently at 85 million members worldwide, the Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.” So, how we behave toward each other in the Anglican Communion has an impact in the wider world. And that “communion” is apparently threatened at the moment by differing opinions about sexuality.

Discerning the way forward at any time is not easy; much easy to stay rooted in what we already know, that is, in the past. The message Jesus came to deliver was not always popular – today’s Gospel shows him returning to his local synagogue, and the people eventually got so upset with his preaching that they were going to kill him. One could say that based on the example of Jesus, the last thing Christianity should ever be is boring, but as we examine the passage we discover that Jesus was being a true radical, neither forgetting his roots nor failing to respond to the challenges of the moment with an eye to the future, so he presented a wholistic and unifying vision to the people of that synagogue. After reading the ancient prophecy, Jesus then says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus always seemed to be much more interested in “where are we going?” than in where people had been.

The community around Jesus was always extremely diverse and accepting of people who would have been considered suspect or dangerous by the conventional mentality of the time. The message of Jesus was to all people, not just to certain kinds of people.

St Paul had it absolutely right when he said 2000 years ago “in that one Spirit – that unified and all-inclusive Spirit — we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, that no longer matters — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member – or one kind of member — but of many. Do you realize the difference between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, in First Century Mediterranean life?

So we tend to notice if there are no young people present in a parish community, for instance, or no people of non-European background, in just the same way that people are reacting to the fact that the Academy Awards has almost no representation of African-Americans. We notice when there are no voices urging us to be socially aware and responsive, no voices challenging us to pay attention to First Nations or LBGTQ issues or the health of the environment.

We have been praying for unity this week, because it is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an event started by an Anglican priest over 100 years ago. One might well ask, to what effect? Well, to the effect that each of us is prepared to act on it and truly believe in the essential oneness of the Body of Christ – our connection with other people. So let us not just pray for unity this week but for a whole new sense of what it means to be a Christian community and Christian people.

I close with a verse from a hymn we often sing:

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
The love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Rector

Appointed readings:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”