Sunday, October 25, 2020

Anniversary Sunday

 He’s the internet pioneer you’ve likely never heard of.

His name is Jacques Gaillot, and his route from rural south-eastern France, to the Algerian desert, and the early days of the World Wide Web begins with a sermon. But that’s the middle of the story.

The story begins as young Jacques completes compulsory military service, enters the seminary, becomes a professor and a priest, and later a bishop. At this point, his story reads like so many of the countless bishops within the Roman Catholic Church. But everything changes with his first Easter service as Bishop of Évreux, when he shares these words: “Christ died outside the walls as he was born outside the walls. If we are to see the light, the sun, of Easter, we ourselves must go outside the walls…Does a bishop remain in his cathedral or does he go into the street?”

His activism was boundless. From the “street” in Évreux he spoke out on disarmament, apartheid, gay rights, French nuclear testing, contraception, clerical celibacy—to name a few. A dozen years after Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop, he removed him, or rather, he relocated him to the Diocese of Parthenia—many times larger than Évreux, but almost completely covered in sand.

You see, Parthenia is a titular see, meaning it was once a thriving part of the church, but no longer exists (except on paper). Within the Catholic Church these former regions are retained as placeholders, or honorifics, or in the case of Jacques Gaillot, as punishment. Along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa there were nearly fifty dioceses with nearly fifty bishops, all of which were gone by the early middle ages.

Having been given a diocese buried under metres of sand, the good bishop moved online, creating the first “virtual” diocese and reaching a worldwide audience. What began as punishment became an opportunity and an early example of the power of the internet to inform and mobilize. 25 years later his work continues.

I share this unlikely story with you because I love stories of people who managed to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” but also because of the story of Parthenia. We celebrate 199 years of Central today, but we also celebrate all the history that led to this moment. We mark this place, but we also remember the parts of the church that led to the creation of this place: from the recent and well-loved places like Mount Dennis, Westminster, and Elverston-Trethewey—to the places that led to their creation. In the same way that each church was formed by people coming from other churches, each person was (and is) formed by others, all of them with a unique background in the faith. This web of believers, existing over time and space, makes us who we are today, as we mark this moment.

It also reminds us that we exist in the middle of the story—always the middle of the story—and what follows is always unknown. We recall the history of this place, and we celebrate the present of this place, and we anticipate with hope the future. Yet, it remains unwritten. We don’t get to see the promised land, the future church that is the fulfillment of all our hopes, because we belong to the middle of the story. And we’re in good company, of course, with no less a figure than Moses himself.

The remarkable passage from Deuteronomy 34 describes the end of Moses’ life, the middle of the story where God shows him the vastness of the promised land—a land he cannot enter. It is the culmination of the most important story in the Old Testament—along with creation itself. From the baby in the basket, to the Incident at Meribah, to this view of the promised land, the story of Moses is foundational to our understanding of the God Who Saves. And as I share this claim, and as you call to mind the arc of the Exodus, I hope you (like me) wonder at the Incident at Meribah.

It’s hinted at in our passage: God says to Moses “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” Walter Bruegemann argues that by the time God reminds Moses, it’s all ancient history—the Incident at Meribah—but our passage turns on this story nonetheless.

It happens like this: The people are complaining once more. Despite the water and the manna and the awkward quail, the people are complaining once more. And in their thirst and frustration they begin to complain to Moses and Aaron and it all sounds rather familiar: ‘Why did you bring us this evil place? At least in Egypt we had places to grow our grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and here, there isn’t even water to drink.’

So Moses and Aaron retreat to the tent of meeting and seek God’s help. God says (in essence) ‘do what you did before. Take the staff, tell the rock to bring forth water, give to the people.’ So they gather the people once more, and Moses speaks. He forgets his homily about the God Who Saves and the gifts God has given them to sustain them so far. And instead he says “Look you idiots, you want me to get some water from this rock?” (look it up—Numbers 20.10) He struck the rock (twice) and everyone drank.

But God was angry. ‘You didn’t speak to the rock, you struck the rock. You didn’t uphold me by saying ‘look at what God is giving you’—you said ‘look at what I’m giving you’ instead. For this reason, you will get to see the promised land, but you cannot enter it. Again, this may be ancient history for Moses, tired after leading these unruly people for forty years, but it defines his end. Stuck in the middle of the story, never entering the promised land, he must settle for hope.

It seems to me that the lesson of forever dwelling in the middle of the story has even wider application. Almost exactly four years ago I shared an article about St. Augustine, the North African saint that some were calling the “patron saint of the 2016 election.” It turns out it was a little too prescient. The author of the article argues that even as the barbarian hordes were overtaking the city, Augustine never lost hope. Even as the Western Roman empire was crumbling, and with it the certitude of the church in this period, Augustine was working for the well-being of the city, and the people he was trusted to lead. “Christians are not of the world, but we’re most definitely in it,” the Archbishop of Philadelphia said. “Augustine would say that our home is the City of God, but we get there by passing through the City of Man…and while we’re on the road, we have a duty to leave the world better than we found it.”*

Again, the middle of the story. And just because we need hope more than ever, I want to quote President Obama, who shared these words on Wednesday, more-or-less saying what all these others are saying:

And the fact that we don’t get 100% of what we want right away is not a good reason not to vote. It means we’ve got to vote and then get some change and then vote some more and then get some more change, and then keep on voting until we get it right.*

The past might be a mystery to us, or even covered in sand, and the present might look like one crisis after another, but we still have hope. The past might not feel like the past to us, and the present might seem like it never lives up to the past, but we still have hope. The past might seem like a trial in the desert, and the present merely a glimpse of the promised land, but we still have hope.

Our task is to keep wandering, keep moving, keep supporting one another, and keep the faith alive. Our task is to find Christ “outside the walls” of the church, and in the streets, the streets where God lives. And our task is to remember that God will save us from every kind of trial, and that God will always lead us home. Amen.



Sunday, October 11, 2020

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 Philippians 4

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Sometimes you’re rhetorical, and other times you’re rhetorical.

The first and most common meaning is the rhetorical question. If you looked outside last night and cried, “why is it getting dark so early?” then you were asking a rhetorical question. There’s a scientific answer—something to do with the earth’s axis—but that’s not the purpose of the question. The rhetorical question is meant to make a point, like the surprising pace of seasonal change.

The other rhetorical, the one that St. Paul loves, relates to persuasion and the use of language. There are numerous devices, or techniques, that are commonly used, and have been identified. And since rhetoric is an ancient discipline, it has long been the subject of study. And no one studied rhetoric as thoroughly as the Greeks, who claimed the right to name these devices. Some examples:

When Yoda said “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” he wasn’t just making an excellent point, he was employing anadiplosis. The ‘last word becomes the first word’ pattern is anadiplosis.

When Ben Franklin said “we must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” he was using antanaclasis—two meanings for the word hang to emphasize his point. Lucky for him, they won their little rebellion.

If I said “tens of people attended worship this morning,” it would sound funny—perhaps even clever—and would be an example of antiphrasis. Antiphrasis takes a common phrase (“tens of” is usually followed by thousands”) and applies it to a given situation.

On the more serious side, if someone raises a topic while pretending not to raise the topic (“I don’t know anything about it, but people are talking about it…”) then they are engaged in apophasis. It’s a way for liars and cheats to deny they ever talked about something. Michael, tell is how you truly feel.

My final example is anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase to underline your point. Lincoln did it at Gettysburg, and most famously Churchill did it on June 4, 1940:

“…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The use of “we” is meant to unite the nation, create common cause, and underline the resolve to never surrender. Interestingly, Churchill used only Old English words in this quote—words in use for over a thousand years—except one: surrender, from the French.

And finally to dear Paul, who wrote in Greek and used anaphora to create this remarkable passage:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

It’s a powerful passage, made more powerful by the use of anaphora. Paul could have said “think about truth, nobility, purity, loveliness…” and it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect. Here Paul is almost pleading, and the repetitive use of “whatever” is an invitation to think of these virtues and whatever else comes to mind. And this, of course, leads to his conclusion—whatever you see in me—try to do this too.

This might be the moment to say more about the context of these words, both the church at Philippi, and people who lived in the city. Philippi was first a Greek city, mostly abandoned by the first century before the common era. After Rome’s civil war (42 BCE) the city was colonized by retired Roman soldiers, a reward for their service to the republic (soon to be empire). There were mines in the area, which meant prosperity, making Philippi a very attractive place to live.

All of these clues (proud, prosperous) may reveal why Paul wrote what he wrote. If you had to summarize the Letter to the Philippians with two words, the two words would be humility and unity. Maybe all that wealth explains the need for humility, or the humility you might need as a proud Roman surrounded by colonized Greeks. Maybe a mixed church of Romans and Greeks, colonizers and the colonized, explains the need for unity. Whatever the reason, Paul wants humility and unity, and he’s willing to use powerful rhetoric to get it.

Still, I think there is more here—more about the Roman world itself—and the ideas that defined the culture. I’m thinking specifically of Roman virtue (weir-tus), which meant something quite different from the virtue we know. We think of goodness when we hear the word virtue, but for Romans virtue was closer to manliness, valour, courage, character, or worth. The Roman god Virtus was the god of bravery in battle, the personification of the Roman virtue.

Later on, the meaning of virtue will begin to resemble what we call virtue, but at the time Paul is writing, virtus is about strength. Everything you did in the public sphere was about gaining and maintaining virtus. You could become famous in the process—there was no shame in glory—but the overall goal was the betterment of Rome. Virtus meant higher standing, higher standing meant more responsibility, and more responsibility meant more opportunities for conquest.

Hold that in your mind and listen to Paul’s plea once more: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things.” These are his concluding words, which are really just a coda to his starting point back in verse four: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

“Let your gentleness be evident to all.”

It would be easy, then, to suggest that our time period has returned to Roman virtus—manliness and conquest—and somehow left a gentler age behind. We could idealize the recent past and imagine that what we face today is unique or new. Yes, we seem to be sliding into a dangerous new age, but for many people and places (even here in Canada) the danger never went away. The view from relative wealth and privilege makes it harder for us to see that for many—too many—conquest never stopped.

And this just adds urgency to Paul’s message. The goal of seeking these things is as relevant today as the day Paul put pen to parchment. As the people of God, we stand up for “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…” What other goals are there? The world needs reminding (and Christians everywhere need reminding) that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of gentleness, and mercy, and justice. Paul gives us powerful rhetoric for powerful ideas— Godly ideas that may be our only hope. Amen.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Feast of Saint Francis

Phillipians 3

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

He preached to the birds, he befriended a wolf, and he rebuilt ruined chapels.  

Like many saints, he was a reformer, directing the church back to founding principles: repentance, care for the sick, and a call to poverty.  His movement, the Friars Minor, grew from the strength of his personality and the compelling example he set.  He was no revolutionary, and he never sought to break with the church—something that disappointed his critics.  He is perhaps the best known saint after Mary herself, and certainly among the most loved.

Francis began his life with wealth and position.  His father was a successful cloth merchant in Assisi, his mother a French noblewoman.  And Francis lived into this wealth.  He had a reputation as a wild young man, a rogue with deep pockets and easy charm, which made him very popular.  

The first change to this life of ease began in war.  Enlisting to fight—some say to demonstrate his love for luxurious costumes—he was captured in battle and held for a year.  Finally ransomed by his father, he returned a changed person.  He began to spend less time at business and more time in prayer, mostly outside Assisi in small chapels.  He developed an affinity for the poor, and when he went on pilgrimage to Rome, he spent much of his time around St. Peter’s with local beggars.

Returning to Assisi, he continued to pray in remote chapels.  On one occasion, Christ spoke to him and said "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."  He took this direction literally, rebuilding ruined chapels and gathering fellow-minded followers.  

His father, you can imagine, was not impressed.  Fearing that all this wealth would one day be spent on these projects, his father sued to disinherit Francis.  The climax of the case saw Francis renounce his father, and famously disrobe, returning his clothing.  As his local fame increased, so did his followers.  

And Francis soon understood the command to rebuild the church as metaphor.  He directed his followers to care for the poor, tend to lepers, and share a message of repentance, brotherly love, and peace.  He and his followers rejected possessions, survived (in the early days) by begging, and saw themselves as standing against the surrounding culture.  

Perhaps this is at the heart of his lasting appeal.  Like the hippies of the 1960s, Francis and his group defied the dominant culture.  They wore simple tunics, and went barefoot—earning them the name pazzo, meaning madmen.  Labelled fools, Francis called himself “a new kind of fool.”  He spoke about himself and his followers as Jongleurs de Dieu (which means something like "jesters for God").  And together they were also referred to as poverello (little poor ones) for their refusal to accumulate possessions.*

All of this points to a departure, a turn from one life to another life altogether.  It defines the life of Francis, and it defines the life of St. Paul.  We hear this in our reading from Philippians: Paul’s recitation at the beginning, his former c.v., and then the conversion that follows.  Listen once more to the source of his early confidence: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”  

But his confident recounting of the past is then transformed into new confidence in the present:  

But whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I now consider them garbage…

In both Francis and Paul we see the same pattern: renunciation, redirection, and rededication.  They discard comfort (Francis) and confidence (Paul) for the sake of Christ.  They redirect their effort to care for the poor (Francis) and the poor at heart (Francis and Paul).  And they rededicate themselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ, building a church (Paul) or rebuilding a church (Francis) to reflect God’s glory.  Whatever was gain is now considered loss for Christ Jesus.

About now you may be wondering how this tiny temple to Methodism (Central) ended up marking a feast day on the Catholic calendar and engaging in so much hagiography—recalling the lives of the saints.  It turns out that Francis is also venerated by Anglicans—our ecclesiastical forebears—and most other traditions too.  Oddly, scholars can find no mention of Francis in the writings of John Wesley, strange because they had much in common.  They shared the same concern for the poor, the same desire to preach Christ in the open air—directly to the people—and the same desire to rebuild the church.  They even shared a love for God’s creatures, Wesley preaching against cruelty to animals.**

What these reformers share is a desire to return to the primitive church.  Reading scripture, considering the relationship between Christ and his disciples, and trying to find the heart of the message—these are the hallmarks of the reformer’s project.  Time and trouble create a complicated church, and the task of the reformer is to return the church to first principles: forgiveness, care for the vulnerable, and peace—peace between people, and between people and the earth.

And this last point, perhaps, explains Francis’ lasting appeal.  Each generation can find in Francis the simple and unifying message they need in troubled times.  In the 60s it was an end to war, and the sense of sisterhood and brotherhood of all peoples.  Today, it’s the environment, and a saint that can bless our need to care for creation, to guide us back to a peaceful relationship with the one Francis called Sister Mother Earth.  To this end, I want to conclude with the story of the Wolf of  Gubbio.

Fear of wolves lived in the hearts of many in the middle ages, and none more than rural people.  Wolves were a threat to livestock, and a threat to the lone traveller, particularly at night.  While Francis was living near Gubbio, the townspeople were contending with one such wolf.  The town, in effect, was under siege.  Attempts were made to kill the wolf, but to no avail.

Francis, deciding on a new approach, departed the town walls, and found the wolf near its lair.  Making the sign of the cross, he spoke to the wolf, offering a simple exchange.  Past wrongs would be forgiven, and food shared, if the wolf left the people and their animals alone.  The wolf extended a paw and Francis took it.  It is said that the people befriended the wolf, and mourned when it died, even (according to tradition) burying the wolf in the churchyard.  All of this, of course, was regarded as legend, until 1872, when the skeleton of a large wolf was discovered near the outer wall of the church.           

Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live new lives of love and mercy.  Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live differently on the earth.  And knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can rebuild the church for each new generation.

May God bless us and the world God made.  Amen.

*Thanks here to my neo-Franciscan friend Ted.  

**Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,” §1-2