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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2015 – Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

christ-children

Yeah, yeah. I know this technically goes with another passage but you get the idea.

“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” (9:36-37).

Brothers and sisters, it is hard to believe that I’m standing here before you this morning preaching my last sermon at St. Cuthbert’s. Five months hardly seems like a sufficient amount of time to be together. And yet, I am deeply thankful. I know not why, but God in His providence saw fit to have our paths cross if only for a short time. You all, all of you, have been a gift to me, and to my family, and I can only hope and pray that I have been the same to you. And so I thank the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the gift of your friendship. In his letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit…one hope of your calling…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (4:4-6). Indeed, we are one in Christ if we hold firm to him. Be assured that I will remember you in my prayers and I ask that you would pray for me as well.

I’ve heard it said that every preacher really only has one sermon and for the most part that’s probably true. Reflecting back on my time with you, I think that today’s gospel reading from Mark nicely sums up the one sermon that I think I have been given to share with you all.

“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” (9:36-37). Christians pride themselves on being a welcoming bunch. If you don’t believe me just pay a visit to most any church website and I’ll bet that one of the first words you come across is “welcome”. And what would a Sunday morning be without coffee hour? This is good, we should practice hospitality and welcome both friend and stranger. But where does this welcome come from? And into what are we welcoming others?

Last week we looked at a passage from earlier in Mark’s gospel and discovered that we find life, not when we try to secure it for ourselves, but when we lose our life for the sake of Jesus Christ and the gospel. This week we have a similar scene a little bit later in Mark. Jesus foretells of his death for the second time, in response to which the disciples grow increasingly confused and fearful.

They then come to rest in the home of a friend and Jesus sits down and begins to teach them, fully aware of what it was they were discussing on the way: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” (9:35). Last of all? Servant of all? Perhaps we, like the disciples, feel that this is a hard teaching. Perhaps we are likewise confused and fearful—if we are honest with Jesus about our questions along the way, will his response fit nicely into our life, or will he turn our life on its head?

In the next chapter we witness a similar scene, only the disciples are more brazen this time: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” (10:35-37). We then hear Jesus’ refrain again: “whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all,” (10:44). “For,” he continues, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” (10:45).

Last week we heard the command, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This week we hear, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The lives we are called into as apprentices of Jesus are lives that are conformed to our master.

But how does any of this happen? How do we become a people so marked by humility and charity? Well, we have the gospel accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We could, perhaps study them, see what Jesus is like, and try our best to do what he does. Or, we could look to Paul’s letters and try to practice all of the virtues he talks about and avoid all of the vices. But if living in God’s new world were as simple as following Jesus’ example then the crucifixion would seem a bit over-the-top, no? “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again,” (9:31). Our problem isn’t that we don’t try hard enough, it is that apart from Christ we are dead in our sin. And what sinful human creatures need is not motivation but resurrection.

“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” (9:36-37). In this picture, we are confronted with a great mystery, that God has given Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. As the very fullness of God with us, Jesus Christ is our life.

There’s something significant about Jesus’ identification of himself with the child. Children, at this time, were of low esteem, the lowest order in the social scale, oftentimes abandoned to the elements and whatever else may come. Into this context, God gives himself to us in the form of an infant. As it is put so beautifully in a 4th century Christian hymn: “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb,” (Te Deum). God with us, in the very weakness of human flesh; in the lowly infant born in a stable, in the lowly man hung on a cross. “And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As the child is placed in the midst of the disciples so too we receive the crucified Christ into our midst in many ways, concrete and yet surprising. In baptism, where the Spirit joins us to him and his mystical Body, and we enter into the way. In the Eucharist, where we feed on his flesh and blood, nourishment for the journey. In Holy Scripture, where we hear and see the story of our salvation which culminates in Christ, where we have come from and where God is leading us. In the presence of one another, fellow pilgrims along the way, that we might together grow up into the full stature of Christ. And in all of these ways, God opens our eyes to behold the beauty of the risen Christ.

This is the beginning of the whole of the Christian life—not our own effort or ingenuity, but our reception of the God who took on flesh in the form of an infant and entered into the midst of us, giving himself wholly over to us in Jesus Christ. And I thank you for your gracious welcome of me into this faithful community. We have walked along the way some distance now, and together I pray that our eyes have been opened to see, and our hearts open to daily receive Christ into the midst of our common life. What a gift. It is said that Martin Luther’s dying words were, “We are beggars; this is true.” A fitting image of what it means to be an apprentice of Jesus—hands outstretched, seeking, open to receive that which only God can give in the form of his Son, His very self, our very life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon was preached by the Rev’d Jonathan R. Turtle at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 20th, 2015.

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adamandeve

“Honey, is that buck checking out my ass?”

Robert Farrar Capon’s Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage is a real gem of a book. The fourth chapter, ‘Roles’, can be no less jarring (offensive?) today than when it was originally published in 1965. In it Capon addresses the distinct and different roles of men and women in marriage. He says, for example, that while men and women are equal husbands and wives are not (and, we can presume, neither are fathers and mothers). The difference between husbands and wives, “is not one of worth, ability or intelligence, but of role. It is functional not organic,” (53). In a lengthy passage he compares marriage and the distinction between husband and wife to a dance, rather than a march:

“[The difference] is based on the exigencies of the Dance, not on a judgment as to talent. In the ballet, in any intricate dance, one dancer leads, the other follows. Not because one is better (he may or may not be), but because that is his part. Our mistake, here as elsewhere, is to think that equality and diversity are unreconcilable. The common notion of equality is based on the image of the march. In a parade, really unequal beings are dressed alike, given guns of identical length, trained to hold them at the same angle, and ordered to keep step with a fixed beat. But it is not the parade that is true to life; it is the dance. There you have real equals assigned unequal roles in order that each may achieve his individual perfection in the whole. Nothing is less personal than a parade; nothing more so than a dance. It is the choice image of fulfillment through function, and it comes very close to the heart of the Trinity. Marriage is a hierarchical game played by co-equal persons. Keep that paradox and you move in the freedom of the Dance; alter it, and you grow weary with marching.”

Marriage is a hierarchical game played by co-equal persons. Marriage involves not spouses, but husbands and wives. To tinker with that distinction is to turn the freedom of the Dance into the bore of a march.

This distinction isn’t an end in itself. In the eschaton there will be no marriage, after all. It is, rather, for the purposes of being united in love. Husband and wife, “are set in a dance in order that their separateness might become membership in each other,” (58).

It seems to me that we live in a culture where to press the distinction between male and female too hard is to put you in the uncomfortable position of being looked at as something of a backwoods ass. In an age of gender fluidity, where “male” and “female” name nothing other than genitalia (and sometimes not even that) to proclaim the (natural and obvious) truth that men and women are different creatures[1] is something rather radical, I think. (And I mean “radical” literally, as a return to the root). What say you? Does Fr. Capon’s image resonate with you? Disturb you? Make you want to give him a post-mortem high-five?

Fr. Capon has a lot of beautiful things to say about being husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, some of which I’ll try to share over the next few days.

Peace.

[1] “It was not enough for the Creator to make us human. Absurdly, he went further. Male and Female created he them. The truth of our being is that we are one species, but just barely. Even without counting porpoises, this planet houses two different sorts of rationality, two different kinds of freedom, and two different brands of love: men’s and women’s,” (48).

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2015 – Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Crucifixion.andreas.pavias

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35

It seems a truism that people generally want to live happy and full lives. In fact, we might take it one step further and say, at least in the late-Modern West, that if we take all of the right steps we deserve to have happy and full lives. Furthermore, even if we haven’t done anything in particular that makes us feel as if we deserve just such a life, we feel entitled to a happy and full life anyways—it is our right, we might say. Documents like The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or The Declaration of Independence uphold this right in various ways. In the depth of our being we all want to feel fully alive. In the second century St. Irenaeus wrote that, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” “Yes!” comes our response. “Indeed!”

We all have a picture of what the good life is and the ambitions that we have and the goals that we set for ourselves tend to follow from that picture. I recently reconnected with a childhood friend online. He comes from a wealthy family and after graduating from university was given a job in the family business. The photographs that he shares on social media are really something. He drives an expensive car, he just bought a home in a wealthy part of the city, he is fit and athletic, all of his friends seem to be beautiful and young, he is constantly traveling to places like New York and Los Angeles. And all of this in his early 30s. The good life!

OK, perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Maybe I ought to examine myself. What are my own ambitions in life? Obviously to have a family, a large one. If it were up to me we might well have 6 or 7 children. I hope to be ordained a priest one day soon, maybe be involved in some sort of exciting ministry. I don’t aspire to much in the way of financial gain, but I do want my family and I to be comfortable, to be able to pay the bills and have some left over for savings, or a trip to somewhere warm or the occasional wardrobe update, to own a house—though in Toronto that seems like an increasingly fleeting ambition. But why all of this? Why any of it? I want to be loved by my family and friends, respected and admired by my colleagues and parishioners, remembered after I am gone and so on. I think we could all agree that these are good things. But even the pursuit of good things can become twisted if they become an end in themselves.

“While there is much in the world to love,” wrote one of the early Christians, “it is best loved in relation to the One who made it. The world is beautiful, but much fairer is the One who fashioned it,” (Caesarius of Arles). Therein lies the problem. We have been given all things as a way of ordering our love towards God, the One in whom all things have their being. However, when we love the good things of this world in themselves, then this love becomes the way of death rather than the way of life which we suppose it to be. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” asks Jesus (8:36).

Perhaps then, the various ambitions and plans and desires that we have for ourselves function in some way as an attempt to save our life, if you will. However, we often fail to realize the ways in which our attempts to save our life spell death not only for ourselves but for others as well. Then when their lifeless little bodies wash up on our shores, or their lifeless black bodies wind up in our streets, we are shocked and appalled. Yet these stark images with which we are confronted are a revelation from which we must not avert our eyes: life is abundant, yet we fill it with death.

This is a great mystery, is it not? The mystery of iniquity. Yet, when it comes to the matter of life and death there is a greater mystery still. The mystery of Christ—life in death. That the place we come to discover life in all of its fullness, is in the figure on the cross. In our gospel reading, as soon as the disciples began to grasp that Jesus was the Messiah, they came face to face with something most unexpected, the great paradox of the Christian faith and life which pushed back on all of their, and our, expectations of who Jesus is and what he would do and how he would do it: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” (8:31).

On the basis of what we think we know about the divine, who of us would ever think to look for the truth of God in the man Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross? “God forbid it!” cried Peter in his rebuke of Jesus, and the disciples and we along with them are similarly confounded. And yet, indeed, it is just here where we come to find life in all of its fullness, on the cross where Christ Jesus gives himself wholly for the life of the world. And this same Jesus gives himself to us still—in the presence of his Holy Spirit, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the word preached and received, in the face of the neighbour.

Furthermore, if it is through the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus Christ that we enter into the fullness of God’s life and love then it is only when our own lives are transformed and marked by a similar sort of self-giving love that we truly begin to taste life in all of its abundance. “If any want to become my followers,” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (8:34).

At the beginning of this sermon I quoted Irenaeus saying, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” As I said, this saying resonates with us because we all desire to live a full and happy life. The great irony, however, is that when Irenaeus was talking about being “fully alive” he was talking about martyrdom—that we are most fully alive when we lose our life for the sake of Christ and for the gospel. If you want to see an image of human creatures set ablaze with the fire of life recall the image of 21 of our Egyptian Christian brothers as they knelt on a beach somewhere in the Middle East this past year moments before they were beheaded by the Islamic State.

People of the cross, indeed.

People of the cross, indeed.

Or, perhaps you know the story of Henri Nouwen, who after nearly two decades of teaching at places like Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard left the comfort of academia behind to live in community with the mentally and physically handicapped people of L’Arche Daybreak just north of Toronto. As he gave himself to his friends and received the gift of their presence, Nouwen experienced a conversion that brought him closer to Jesus Christ. And I’m sure his friends there experienced the same.

And what about us, here at St. Cuthbert’s? The Greek word from which we get the English word “martyr” means, literally, “to bear witness.” So, while we must be open to the possibility of actual martyrdom, in the absence of death there are other ways in which we might bear witness to Christ by losing our lives. And where we cannot give our lives we can give our money. I won’t give a whole list of examples, save one: I am very pleased that we are considering sponsoring a Syrian refugee or refugee family and I would urge us all to take this step together and do so. More generally though, what if the sort of friendships that were nurtured in this place were formed by the same sort of self-giving fidelity and longevity as marriage? And what if we looked outwards, inviting others to follow Jesus along with us? If we committed to being a community so marked, bearing with one another through time, till death do us part, we might soon discover very practical ways in which we would be called to give ourselves sacrificially to one another, for the sake of the gospel.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” (8:35). To cling to the things of this life, the things which we naturally desire and value most, is the way to forfeit true life. On the other hand, Jesus is clear—when are we most fully alive? Not when we accomplish all of our goals; not when we are surrounded by all that we could possibly desire; but when we give ourselves away in love. Do you want to find your life? Then lose your life for the sake of the gospel. Do you want to be fulfilled? Then empty yourself. This isn’t about “doing more.” This isn’t even primarily about us. It is about having our eyes opened to the mystery of Jesus Christ, and to hear his call to deny ourself, pick up our cross, and follow him. This is not an easy way, to be sure, but the one who calls us to follow him in this way will help us in carrying it out and along the way we may just discover life in all of its fullness. Amen.

Sermon was preached by the Rev’d Jonathan R. Turtle at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13th, 2015.

creation of Adam

The church of my teenage years was large (1,000+ Sunday attendance), nondescript (the vague usage of the word “Community” in the title did little to betray any sort of denominational allegiance), suburban, and evangelical. Don’t get me wrong, I still consider myself to be an evangelical (what I mean by this is that I place a high-priority on things like, for example, personal conversion and the authority of the Bible. I admit, however, that having to employ the term “evangelical” to signify these sorts of things is somewhat unfortunate), but this church was a part of an evangelical subculture of which I am no longer a member nor of which do I have much of an interest. For some helpful parsing of the term “evangelical” see here.

One of the memories that has stuck with me from my time there was an experience I had attending an adult Sunday school class. The class was on the subject of Intelligent Design, or Creationism, or something along those lines and was taught by a woman vastly under-qualified for such a thing—she was not, to my knowledge, a Biblical scholar or theologian nor was she an physicist or evolutionary biologist. For example, she took a hard line on things like a literal reading of the creation accounts in Genesis. “Literal” is a somewhat clumsy term. I simply mean that she understood and taught that the first two chapters of Genesis were a documentary-like account of how God created. To my memory, I was one of the only people in a class of nearly 100 who ever, regularly (yes, I was a bit boisterous) pushed back and thought to ask questions pertaining to the content of the course and the soundness of our dear teacher’s logic. She never much liked answering my questions and it got the point where she would see my hand raised and just continue on talking as if no one had any questions. (On one account, I had the woman in front of me raise her hand and when the teacher acknowledged the woman I piped up with my question, much to the teachers dismay). Later, she would ask my mother to ask me not to return to the class.

In the first chapter of his book, The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart goes in on this sort of fundamentalism and rightly calls it what it is, “a thoroughly modern phenomenon,” and an attempt on the part of some Christians, “to imitate the evidentiary methods of modern empirical science by taking the Bible as some sort of objective and impeccably consistent digest of historical data,” (24-25). As Hart notes, this simply isn’t the way that the Bible has been read by Christians for most of the last 2,000 years (nor was it the approach Israelites took to Scripture before that).

Most of the Church Fathers, for example, took it for granted that the creation narratives of Genesis could not be read literally but rather must be read allegorically. That is, “read as stories whose value lies in the spiritual truths to which they can be seen as pointing,” (25). Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Augustine are all Fathers which Hart cites on this point. They read these narratives not as “historical fact” but figurally as “communicating spiritual mysteries.” This is why, among Darwin’s contemporaries, even the likes of John Henry Newman could find nothing to suggest that evolution and the doctrine of creation were mutually exclusive. It simply wasn’t until the modern period that a small minority of Christians became convinced that the truth or validity of their faith was dependant upon a strictly literalistic interpretation of Scripture and then staked everything on just such a ludicrous wager (Hart’s words!). And they really did stake everything. For example, the Sunday school teacher I mentioned above argued that if we did not accept a literal 6 24-hour day creation account that everything in the Bible was called into question including the gospel. Nonsense.

Why/how did this happen? Hart argues that it was largely the result of a certain cultural impoverishment on the side of the fundamentalist Christians, but it also “followed from the triumph of a distinctly modern concept of what constitutes reliable knowledge; it was the strange misapplication of the rigorous but quite limited methods of the modern empirical sciences to questions properly belonging to the realms of logic and of spiritual experience,” (27). Captive to this modern empirical rationality many of these Christians (and many of their opposing atheists as well) genuinely believed that there was a logical contradiction between the doctrine of creation and the idea that earthly life had evolved over time. So, they’d better double-down on creationism. Even as a young, over-confident and boisterous 18 year old I just knew that these things needn’t be mutually exclusive. There must be another way.

There is another way and Hart presents it in the form of a rather simple argument:

Premise 1: Christians believe that God is the creator of every person.

Premise 2: Christians believe that each person is also the product of a spermatozoon and ovum.

Conclusion: Therefore, God’s creative act needn’t be framed as a “distinct causal agency” which in some way rivals the natural process of conception but may rather be understood “as the whole event of nature and existence.”

The reason why many of these Christians see an irreconcilable gap between evolution and the doctrine of creation is because they understand God as”a kind of supreme mechanical cause located somewhere within the continuum of nature.” But this simply isn’t what Christians have traditionally meant when we speak of God. It’s a modern rendering thoroughly subject to modern epistemological concerns. Hart sees a way through the impasse by (presumably) reading the Bible with the whole Church and coming to understand that God creates through “‘donating’ being to a natural order that is complete in itself,” (28).

Does this sound a bit like a “watchmaker” God? Perhaps. I’m sure that’s not the case as I’ll find out when I continue reading. These were some initial thoughts. My guess is Hart is simply here maintaining the traditional Christian doctrine of the transcendence of God.

I’ll try to post more as I read. What say you?