Homily for the 24th Sunday of Pentecost – October 23, 2016
I am very conscious today that for many of you, this may be the last time we ever connect in person; I am also conscious that this is most likely the last time I will ever speak from this pulpit. Over the last eight years, I have preached to you something like 350 times on Sunday’s alone, so, if you have been listening, you have already heard what God sent me here to say. But keep the ears of your hearts open today too, just in case.
I want to say to you that in all those 350 or so times, every time out, I was trying to proclaim to you, in the best way that I could, something significant, something worth thinking about, something of the truth and life of the awesome God we serve through Jesus Christ.
We have studied and reflected together. At least 60 (and probably more like 70 or even 80) of you have taken part in adult formation classes we have offered in the Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening studies and in sermon\discussion series.
We have explored Benedictine and Franciscan spirituality, reflected on Jesus in the movies; we have considered “contemporary faith and spiritual practice,” and we have tried to imagine where the church might be going in the 21st Century. We have re-visited the painful legacy of the Residential Schools and made an effort to empathize with contemporary First Nations people; we have looked at inter-faith issues and we have visited mosques together; with the help of Dr Nancy Reeves, we promised to say Yes to God; with the help of people like Matthew Fox, Marcus Borg, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Harold Kushner, Brian McLaren, Lillian Daniel, Thomas Green sj, Stephanie Spellers and Michael Ingham, we met Jesus again for the first time, we have considered what it means to be radically welcoming, we have pondered why bad things happen to good people, and we have tried (God knows we tried) to imagine a complaint-free world. All being well, we know how to age with grace, and we know something of what it means to “live the questions.”
We have done a lot together over these eight years. I have lived a substantial piece of my life here, and yet the time has gone by very quickly.
I have grieved with you, celebrated with you, golfed with some of you, walked and talked with many of you, and we have enjoyed a lot of fellowship around the table, and even though I’ve gained 30 pounds and added some white hair, I am enormously grateful (as well as just being enormous) and I think Jesus would have approved (he was, after all, accused of being a drunk and a glutton).
The parish welcomed my approach to liturgy and it seems to have worked. The survey we did a couple of years ago indicated approval and appreciation ratings that were almost unbelievably positive. As I like to say though, Anglican liturgy is a team game, so that couldn’t happen without the deacons, sacristans, readers, communion assistants, and LaRee and her choir – and without your participation. Keep on making a joyful noise.
We did a study on “radical welcome” and then we gave that a big test when we opened our doors and hearts to the people of St Margaret’s. We are, as a result of that act of faith, stronger, more diverse, more devout, and we eat better than we ever did (and that is saying something!).
I am grateful for what I have meant to you, for the place you allowed me in your hearts. But ministry is never the responsibility or accomplishment of one person. We have created and modeled more of a team approach to ministry, and encouraged a “priesthood of all believers” theology, encouraging people to become engaged in the ministry of the parish, whether that was in pastoral care or governance or Synod, music and liturgy, or outreach or mission, or the work of the Diocese.
I’d love to expand on the Gospel today, of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple – it is such a rich and symbolic parable. But suffice it to say that you could see the Pharisee as one of those people who makes no room for others, who occupies the best seats, assumes a place of prominence, and make others feel less-than and unwelcome. It’s great to gain a place of belonging and become part of a community; it’s great to develop friendships, but there is always a responsibility to be looking to the margins, to be open to the newcomer, the stranger, the seeker. Jewish people were urged never to forget that they were once wanderers and strangers – to allow that memory, that experience, to continue to shape their theology and their pastoral practice.
Please remember Archbishop Temple’s insight: that the Church is the only institution that exists for those who are not its members.
The unaware Pharisee in todays gospel reminds us of the importance of times of self-reflection, times of seeking deeper self-awareness and perspective. From time to time every person, every family, every community, every society, and certainly every parish, needs renewal – new ideas, new directions, new people. This is something to be embraced and welcomed and celebrated, regardless of whether you think those ideas and directions and people measure up to your standards or not.
Why did Jesus tell this parable? The text says “he told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This is one of the reasons Jesus warned about the false virtue of loving people who are just the same as you are, because sometimes staying the same is a dead end, a spiritual death sentence. I have met this angry Pharisee in so many church settings and I have to say I have met him in myself as well – well-meaning, with a strong sense of how things should be, but so angry at the way things are going that the anger itself becomes chronic, even pathological, obscuring other qualities, blinding us to the beauty and goodness that are always around us.
You can become so serious and obsessed with how bad things are that you’re just a curmudgeon and part of the problem, or, like the other guy in the parable, you can de-value yourself to a point that you never allow the good that is in you to shine.
So these two men come, from very different places in life, to the same place to pray – one deeply aware of his need for deep healing, the other bitterly angry about what he sees going on all around him, and I think the parable tells us something of the way in which God’s house is meant to accommodate a great variety of people. “In my Father’s house” as Jesus said, there is a lot of room. I think it tells us something about the scope of God’s love. We bring what we think are our virtues and we bring what we think are our faults, and God sees through them all with the eyes of love.
The temple – the house of God — is the place that welcomes all, and it is always surprising how God puts us into contact with others we might tend to dismiss or even despise, or who might seem to us to be missing more than a few screws.
Going forward …
I hope you will remain conscious and intentional about the quality of community you are offering… This was a great place to come to, and I think it has become a more promising kind of place. But it’s up to you, all of you, to make sure it remains a safe and affirming and inclusive place, as well as a challenging, engaging and transformational place, so pay attention to the behaviours and attitudes and actions of all the members and seek to hold up a certain standard, the one standard that matters, which is love, and not just love in a generic sense, but the love of Jesus, remembering always that the Church doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God.
St John of the Cross, whose festival we observed last week, said “in the evening of life, we shall be judged on love alone.”
There are some great lines in today’s readings, very fitting for the moment. As the writer of II Timothy says “the time of my departure has come.”
As John describes Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, Jesus says, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (Jn 16:7). Not that I am Christ, and that itself is part of the point: Christ isn’t going away, I am. But part of our tradition of ordained ministry is rooted in the idea that when your mission is complete, you move on. Part of what clergy do in attempting to model the apostolic ministry is to be open to the call to move on, to know when they are done in a certain place, and to go where they believe they are meant to be.
It’s that time for me. If I do not go away, the new life that God has in store for you cannot enter, the new doors that are meant to open will stay closed – the new ideas and directions a new person can bring will remain unexplored.
We also celebrated the feast day of St Teresa of Avila last week, and the front cover of today’s leaflet reminds us of her sense that everything is provisional and also about the importance of the art of detachment:
Let nothing disturb you; let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing away; God never changes.
Peace obtains all things; whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is sufficient.
I always loved the line given to John the Baptist – “He must increase and I must decrease” — in which John describes himself merely as a friend of the bridegroom, but not the Bridegroom himself. Indeed, what a friend we have in Jesus! But we need a certain humility as priests — we need to know our real place in the bigger scheme of things. I need to disappear from your radar, and there needs to be a period in which St John’s creates the space for a new priest, and that can’t happen if I am still occupying that space. So, according to what I believe is God’s schedule, not necessarily mine, it’s time to go.
And this is the reality that sustains me as I do: that in Communion we are never separated. God is Communion, and that Communion connects us to all that is, past, present and future, so don’t ever underestimate what you are doing around the altar, because it is the meeting place in which we connect with Christ and all of God’s people in the Communion of Saints.
One ancient saint described God as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. When we gather for Eucharist, we are reminded, and we experience the reality, that everything is included and connected in the oneness of God in Christ. Whoever knows that knows that there is almost nothing to worry about, and that, no matter what, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Joel 2:23-32 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
Psalm 84:1-7 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”