Most of you will know that in the middle of October my father died. Fawna and I called him on Thanksgiving Sunday night by Skype, and it was clear that he was not feeling well. It would be the last time he would speak with us. On Monday morning my mom could not rouse him and called the ambulance. By afternoon the doctors determined that Dad had suffered a massive stroke and was not likely to recover. Fawna and I and my brother and his wife made plans to fly to Texas the following day.
What was to transpire over the ensuing week was both remarkable and moving. The next forty-eight hours featured a steady stream of hospital visitors, many of them from the Methodist Church Mom and Dad attended. Some were quite shaken by the sight of this vigorous and gregarious friend deprived of motion and speech, while others prayed with conviction that Dad would be healed. Mom kept vigil while Dad’s two sisters lovingly applied lotion to his hands and feet. It was reminiscent of the biblical story of the woman who tenderly anointed Jesus before his burial (Mark 14.8).
It was hard to know how well Dad was able to understand the events going on around him. He could nod his head ‘yes’ and from time to time a tear would appear on his cheek. So we read to him and joked with him and continually assured him of our presence and love. On one occasion, after I had prayed with him, I asked if he could say ‘amen’. There was a catch in his breath and his lips closed, as if to confirm my prayer.
His breathing continued to be laboured through the next two days. Then, on Thursday evening, it became dramatically slower, and we sensed that the end was near. The family surrounded his bed. Tearfully, I delivered last rites and bid him, ‘Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world.’ Accompanied by our singing, the oil of healing took final effect and he was delivered into the waiting arms of his Saviour.
The congregation at Monday’s memorial service spilled into the overflow section of the church, indicating just how admired my dad was. We were grateful that all of the grandchildren, and newly-minted spouses, were able to attend from as far away as London, Charlottetown, Sudbury, Vancouver and Japan. My brother delivered a touching and beautiful tribute, and I shared a word on how our weakness can be God’s strength (see my previous posting on this blog). As our families returned home, my brother and I stayed with our mom to help sort out some of Dad’s affairs. She seems to be coping well and is surrounded by a watchful and caring Christian community.
We have all been overwhelmed by the expressions of sympathy and affection that have appeared in cards, e-mails and conversations. I cannot write a personal word of thanks to all of our friends and the members of my diocesan family who have taken time to think and pray for us. But please know that a prayer of thanksgiving for you goes up when I think of you and your kind sentiments. I was particularly touched by the number of people who related to our grief by sharing stories of their own loss of a father. What is it that makes this event in particular so poignant?
We live in an age when roles based on gender have become confusing and problematic. Biologically, of course, we all have fathers. But the image of fatherhood has been contaminated by associations with patriarchalism and the abuse of power. For the last couple of decades there have been attempts to dispense with the language of fatherhood in reference to God in our liturgies and hymnody. But try as we might, I don’t think we shall ever be able to dissociate him from his fatherly personhood. Why do I say this?
First of all, it is because this is the language of Scripture and our Creeds. Indeed, in a scandalous break from his Jewish tradition, Jesus instructed his followers to address God as Abba. And so we do. And not just out of obedience to or imitation of him. Jesus himself prayed, ‘Abba, Father’ in the agony of the garden (Mark 14.36). God is our Father not simply by virtue of the fact that he is the source of all things, but also because we have been united to his Son through grace and the adoptive powers of our baptism.
Secondly, it is because, without the model of our divine Father, we have no basis on which to critique human expressions of fatherhood. I made this point in a public debate once with the New Testament scholar, Markus Borg. Afterward, a young woman approached me and told me how her relationship with God as Father had helped her to heal from an abusive relationship with her own father. Fatherhood may be an institution in search of redefinition these days, but its existence is part of the structure of our humanity. ‘I bow my knees before the Father,’ writes St Paul, ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’ (Ephesians 3.14f.).
This is related, finally, to the comforting (and, at times, discomforting) truth that the fatherhood of God is an expression of his personal nature. Just as Jesus could let his fears and hopes and desires and emotions become the language of his love for the Father, so every dimension of our lives can be directed to him. In Archbishop Rowan Williams’s summary of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘We need sustenance, mercy, protection, daily bread, forgiveness; we need to be steered away from the tests that we are not strong enough to bear’. These are not things that can be brought before the powers of fate or an impersonal life force. They find meaning, as Origen once observed, only when ‘the whole of our life says, “Our Father”’.
In the final moments of my dad’s life, the greatest source of comfort came from the knowledge that we were commending him to his heavenly Father, who is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yours in grief and hope,
My brother, Mike, and I returned home from Texas this past weekend. Amidst our exhaustion, we come back feeling a deep sense of gratitude. We are thankful to have been there before Dad died, for the privilege of being there at his passing from this world, for the presence of our wives and children, who gathered for the memorials service from as far away as the UK and Japan, and for the tremendous outpouring of care and affection of those who have been praying for us and who attended the memorial service.
When we learned that Mom and Dad's recently relocated pastor could not preach at the memorial service on Monday, 20th October, I offered to share a word. What follows is my meditation. It is offered with appreciation for all those who have remembered us and offered words of solace, and as a testimony of the work of God in the life of one we called ‘Dad’.
Memorial Service for Irving Weed Andrews, Jr (1927-2014)
On Thursday evening, my father expended his final earthly breath surrounded by my Mother, his two sisters, my brother and myself and our wives. The end came rapidly, and we believe that, until the afternoon, he was conscious of the intense love and prayer focussed upon him by the many who visited and from those interceding around the world. He died peacefully and we are hopeful that his passage from this world was aided by the ancient commendatory prayer tearfully expressed in his closing moments, ‘Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world, In the Name of God the Father Almighty, who created thee; In the Name of Jesus Christ, who redeemed thee; In the Name of the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth thee. May thy rest be this day in peace, and thy dwelling-place in the Paradise of God.’ And with those words, Dad ‘fell asleep’. There are few more lovely phrases in the Christian vocabulary, for the difference between those who die and those who sleep is that those who sleep will awake.
You know, there was time when I would have scoffed at any prediction that my Dad would end his life in such a profoundly Christian manner. When we were young, we were not much committed to Church. Our weekends were usually spent in the worship of water in the summer and gravity in the winter (as you have heard, he loved to fish and ski). When I discovered Christ’s claim on my life in my late teens, I said to Dad that I was thinking of going into the pastorate. He was astonished. ‘Stephen,’ he exclaimed, ‘ministers don’t make any money!’
For many years there was not much I could do to dilute his disappointment or to shift his disdain for such an impractical and improbable religion. How much of his resistance to the Christian faith was owing to my rebellious nature and arrogant spirit or to his own pride, I’m not sure. (It may surprise some to hear this, but Dad did have opinions.) My brother and I remember a time when Dad said that if one was compelled to address God, the only appropriate prayer was thanksgiving, since it was beneath us to ask God for help. When he did attend church, it was for the fellowship. The Christian faith, however, he regarded as being a crutch for the weak.
But then in the mid-1980s, Dad met a Christian who impressed him deeply – a man of great Christian integrity, conviction and personal strength who also possessed a remarkable humility, and Dad began to open up to spiritual things. Slowly, his pride started to soften and defensiveness gave way to curiosity. Conversations about religion no longer degenerated into acrimonious standoffs, and Dad began to talk about Jesus in a personal way. He would surprise us with comments about others who, he said, need Christ in their lives. And over the course of the last twenty years or so, we have witnessed a remarkable deepening of his own character and belief. His need for Christ, the power of the Cross to convey forgiveness, and the hope of glory became part of his vocabulary, and he found himself challenged and nourished by his reading of God’s Word. We saw a growing tenderness in his relationship with Mom. And, of course, he became devoted to his work with the Pathways youth. And, although Dad was not ostentatious in his faith, some of you have told us in these past few days how Irv had shared a word in season that brought spiritual help or comfort. We marvel at this transformation. It is not lost on me that the evidence of this spiritual growth coincides with the time that he and Mom started coming to this church.
When Dad’s health problems started to plague him, we began to talk about his mortality. I regularly asked him if he had any regrets. He acknowledged that he had made mistakes in his life, and the older he got, the more he worked at mending fences. But he also grew in his conviction that God’s mercy was greater than his mistakes. Indeed, I asked on Thursday morning if he was at peace with God. His eyes closed and, with deliberation, he nodded ‘yes’. And so we now live in hope that Dad knows God’s peace in its fullness, and I think that Dad would want me to tell you that this peace is available to all who love Jesus and heed his words.
As my brother has already explained, while my Dad accomplished many things in life, the most remarkable thing to us is the change that has taken place in him. The truth that God is in the transformation business, that he has this way of turning the world upside down and ourselves inside out, should not make us wonder. It is a consistent theme of Scripture. In our Old Testament lesson, we read that, in the domain of hunger, sadness and mortality, the LORD God will ‘prepare a banquet of rich fare for all the peoples’, ‘wipe away the tears from every face’, and ‘destroy death for ever’ (Is 25.6-8). Our Psalmist reminds us that in the hostile and trackless wilderness we will find ourselves led ‘in paths of righteousness’ in the presence of the divine Shepherd (Ps 23.3). And St Peter assures us that present tribulation will yield the refinement of our souls, so that, like gold being purified by fire, our ‘faith may prove itself worthy of all praise, glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (1 Pet. 3.7).
But perhaps the most striking example of the way God challenges and revises the world’s values is to be found in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed’ he says are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the pure-hearted, the peaceable, the persecuted.
Now, it must be admitted that this is an odd catalogue of ‘qualities’. What’s the virtue in poverty? Who wants to be sad all the time? What’s so great about hunger and thirst (that is, if you’re not trying to lose weight)? If we were to become truly pure-hearted, then we might never watch another British comedy. How can we maintain our dignity if we have to be peaceable all the time? And who looks for opportunities to be persecuted? These characteristics are clearly not endorsed by our self-empowering, initiative-taking, rights-insisting, self-gratifying culture. They are part of the reason that the 19th century thinker Friedrich Nietzsche rejected Christianity as a religion of pity. He condemned the Christian faith and what he called its ‘God of the sick’, writing, ‘The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its depravity, it has made of every value a disvalue.’
Do we worship a ‘God of the sick’, and is it the case that Christianity is a religion of and for the weak? Even some great Christian thinkers have been led to this conclusion. ‘How extraordinary’, Martin Luther once exclaimed, ‘that the kingdom which Jesus came to establish should look like a hospital!’
Now I realise that this is not a particularly compelling image for Christ’s kingdom, or for the Christian life. But there is a great deal of truth in it. Those who arrogantly and contemptuously regard Christianity as a crutch will never understand how wonderful this insight is until they discover just how crippled they are. For you see, Christianity is not a religion of the strong, or of the mighty or of the powerful. It is a religion for the sick and the weak. Jesus said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick’ (Mt 9.12). Christianity is a religion for those of us who can’t help but admit that we have failed – and continue to fail – our spouses, our children, our neighbours, our friends and colleagues, our churches, ourselves, our God. True, some have more to overcome than others, for some have been more deeply wounded in life. But we are all casualties, and we know what it is to struggle through a day burdened by regret and care.
When we reach those moments of emptiness, grief and despair let us hear afresh the voice of Jesus. It is a voice of authority and command, and yet it is gentle and wooing:
Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Blessed are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation. Blessed are the gentle; they shall have the earth for their possession. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied. Blessed are those who show mercy; mercy shall be shown to them. Blessed are those whose hearts are pure; they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called God’s children. Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Blessed are you, when you suffer insults and persecution and calumnies of every kind for my sake. Exult and be glad, for you have a rich reward in heaven.
When we hear these words in our infirmity, we discover a miraculous metamorphosis, an ennoblement whereby human frailty becomes divine fortitude. For you see, the Beatitudes actually transform the signs of weakness into a beautiful and comprehensive portrait of Christian discipleship. For the mark of the true disciple is that he or she acknowledges his or her spiritual poverty and mourns over it. This attitude of humility, borne of spiritual need, makes the Christian disciple meek and gentle. And yet, he or she is not content simply to acknowledge personal neediness, but hungers and thirsts for what is right, and longs to grow in grace and goodness. We therefore see this disciple out in the human community, feeling the world’s pain and showing mercy to those who are its victims. This disciple works for peace and reconciliation, and yet is vulnerable to opposition, slander, insult and persecution on account of the righteousness for which he or she contends and for the Christ he or she follows.
Is this weakness? No, my friends, this is true strength. The strength Nietzsche sought but never found drove him into an insane asylum; while the weakness which is the foundation of God’s transfiguring work in the believer will usher us to the gates of heaven.
And it is with this that I wish to end. I loved my Dad and I know that he was proud of his sons. But I will admit that he and I used to have some, shall we say, ‘animated’ discussions about matters ecclesiastical and political. I find myself now with the opportunity to get in the final word! But I will not. That word I shall surrender to Jesus. What is that word? It is ‘Blessed’. And it comes not just from the first book of the New Testament, but from the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation: ‘I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.’ (14.13)
Rest in peace, Dad, we, your works, shall follow you. And we shall see you in the morning.
First of all, I want to thank you, on behalf of Fawna, my Mom, Emmy Lou, and my brother and his wife, Mike and Darlene, for the tremendous outpouring of prayer that we know is ascending even as I sit down to write. The last day and-a-half has been filled with joy at our reunion with Dad and sadness about the stroke that has impaired his once-vigorous body. We have sensed the love and support of so many, and I can say that I believe that my Dad is at peace with the world and, most importantly, with God. I would not claim that he is at peace with his deteriorating frame. I suspect it frustrates him.
Nevertheless, we are preparing ourselves for the reality that he is not going to get better in this world. We had the sober family gathering with the doctor yesterday and asked simply that Dad be kept comfortable. The doctor was wary of making any predictions, but he guessed that we would have a couple of days.
The OED says that the word ‘expire’ means, technically, ‘to exhale (air) from the lungs’. It is taken from the Latin ex spirare, ‘to breathe out’. Dad is expiring. As his breathing becomes more laboured it is as if bits of life are being released into the room. They escape in increments so small that it takes hundreds, thousands of contractions of his lungs, and we watch prayerfully, almost worshipfully, as he goes about his final work on this earth.
And yet, his expiration is an inspiration for those of us who surround him. We are taking in those bits of life. Each breath brings a memory; each breath summons a friend; each breath reminds us both of God’s goodness and our own mortality. These are sacred moments.
Bishop Michael Hawkins wrote with characteristic insight: ‘The Lord bless his going out and his coming in.’ As with all those on the threshold of the kingdom in its fullness, we would ask you to continue to pray for us as we commend him into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Saviour.
You may know that we had a wedding in the family this past August. Our older daughter, Clare, married her fiancé, Luke, in a very dignified service at the Cathedral in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. The ceremony was followed by an elegant reception on the lawn at Bishophurst. It was a beautiful event with many touching moments, and Fawna and I are still sorting through the photos and recalling things that surprised and delighted us. We are so grateful for the well-wishes of many across the diocese, and for the way that church folk (and the weather!) in the Sault contributed to the day’s success.
I have been in the marrying business long enough to know that for all the joy they bring, weddings can be very stressful occasions. I used to tell couples that if they got to the altar with everybody involved still on speaking terms, their marriage was off to a great start! I am relieved to say that the Andrews-Norton wedding survived with the communications department still intact, thanks largely to the patience and understanding of the couple as they tried to accommodate the senescent expectations of their parents. Marriage customs and the attitudes that shape them have changed a great deal since we were married, nearly thirty years’ ago. To begin with, the marriage rate in Canada has more than halved since 1985, while the average age of those getting married has increased almost five years. And then there are the economics. Anyone who has cable TV knows what I am talking about, as there are over a dozen reality television shows treating everything from wedding cakes to wedding dresses to wedding planners. Weddings are big business these days.
But there are two aspects of marriage that seem to be relatively impervious to the shifts and distortions of modern fashion. Indeed, I found their presence in our daughter’s wedding particularly significant and moving. The first has to do with the nature of the vows; and the second with the nature of the witnesses.
Now, you may chalk it up to parental partiality, but I don’t think I have ever officiated at a wedding where I have heard a couple utter their vows with such conviction. They did not simply repeat their lines. One detected in their voices a passionate determination to live up to this high ideal of mutual self-giving. The ancient Prayer Book phrases thus came alive as they conveyed trust, resolve and the declaration of wills, and mere words took on a power to bind. There are few instances in human language when words perform such a noble task, that is, when they actually bring into being what it is that they proclaim. Just as the shackles come off when the judge says, ‘You are free to go’, or the brightness penetrated the darkness when God said, ‘Let there be light’, so the pledging of one to other in the wedding ceremony effects a marriage, a union created between two formerly distinct individuals. It was a compelling moment.
Of course, for all of its exaltation, the language of the marriage service is also realistic. For no sooner than vows and rings are exchanged, we pray that God would send his blessing upon his servants, ‘that they may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made’. Relationships are hard work, and there is often a painful distance between marriage in the ideal and the flawed post-honeymoon reality. A husband said to his wife during a quarrel, ‘You know, I was a fool when I married you.’ She replied, ‘Yes, dear, but I was in love and didn’t notice.’
However, recent research at the University of Virginia suggests that ‘those who have more guests at their nuptials are more likely to report high-quality marriages than those with a small wedding party’. The report’s authors believe that this finding has to do with making a public declaration of commitment and having community support. The other notable feature of our August wedding was the devotion of family and friends who had come together from far and wide, and at some expense, to witness and celebrate the matrimonial vows. Fawna and I simply couldn’t have hosted such a grand event without them, and their cheerful involvement in every aspect of the wedding weekend made a deep impression on the newlyweds.
When we pray for God’s blessing on a couple, it is often with the expectation that he will grant them an inner fortitude to keep true to their promises. But in an age that glorifies independence, we may overlook the fact that one of God’s chief blessings is community. Publicly declared oaths creates social accountability, which is why, as an institution, marriage deserves the protection of the state. In the Church, ‘community’ means a fellowship that treasures marriage and stands ready to aid couples as they forge a new life together. In the BAS liturgy, we ask the congregation, ‘You are the witnesses to these vows now being made. Will you do all in your power to support and uphold this marriage?’ Now that the wedding season is drawing to a close, it is worth asking what are we doing as parishes to fulfill our own vows.
Henny Youngman once quipped, ‘The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.’ Our summer experience has convinced me more than ever that this is not true. The secret of a happy marriage is a formula of vows made with integrity in the presence of a loving and supportive community, both of which are manifestations of the grace of a caring God.
Well, the crew has safely returned from our African adventure. I had hoped to make periodic updates from Tarime, but underestimated just how intermittent things like hydro are in rural Tanzania. So, as time permits, I will venture the odd offering that will hopefully convey something of our experience there – though in truth, it was so overwhelming that it will take some time to form any kind of comprehensive picture.
So, I walked to work yesterday. I normally don’t reflect on this. It is a routine I try to follow where I get a little exercise and listen to podcasts. But I was struck by how deserted the walk felt by contrast to the bustle of Tanzania. From the moment we landed to the day of our departure we were astounded at the sheer number of people. They were everywhere. There was nothing in the landscape during the 3 ½ hour drive from Mwanza to Mogabiri (more like 4 hours, with the flat tire!) that did not feature human activity of some sort. On the verge of the road were clusters of women walking with buckets of water or grain or produce balanced on their heads; there were bicycles laden with hundreds of pounds of freshly cut bananas; there were children clutching bags of sugar cane or playing with hoops; there were men huddled around card tables. The crowded village streets were lined with shallow, dark shops and all manner of colourful vegetables and fabric on display on the ground. Our driver was busy swerving to avoid under-powered motorcycles, goats and cattle, and a stream of regional busses, many of which looked like they had been painted by Californian hippies. We were forever asking, ‘What are all these people doing and where do they live?’ Even at night the car lights gave us fleeting glimpses of commotion beside the road.
We in the West are accustomed to looking at unemployment rates as a measure of the health of our economy. While it is clear that rural Tanzania has its capitalist sector (the Coca Cola dealer did a fine trade off of our group!), it is hard to imagine what ‘unemployment’ might mean in a subsistence economy like we saw. Nearly everyone, children too young for school included, was engaged in some sort of busyness related to survival. The constant movement along the roads was all part of the commerce of going to or coming from the market. The clergy and catechists all have agricultural projects that help subsidise their meagre stipends of $2-3 per week. Even the bishop maintains a crop of maize which he hopes to be able to sell in support of his projects. And a regular feature of Sunday worship is the auction of donated produce as a way of raising money for the church. The gifts were modest by our standards. But we came to see just how sacrificial church membership could be when we considered the importance of these goods for basic human survival.
We were impressed by the industry of these people, and by their capacity for hard physical labour. From what we witnessed, starvation was not a problem (and, of course, neither was obesity). But a subsistence lifestyle has a way of challenging one’s perspective on wealth. To begin with, our attitude towards the land and its fruit would be very different if we saw just how closely connected it is to our survival. Moreover, the value we place on community would be enhanced by a realisation of just how much our welfare depends on others. It strikes me that our Tanzanian brothers and sisters really understand what it means to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ And when we reflect on the notion that this petition signals the heavenly banquet that Jesus looked forward to sharing with his disciples, it makes me think that the Tanzanian church also has much to teach us about the fullness of eternal life.
The Nairobi airport was a sea of humanity when we disembarked, but we were greeted by a sign that said 'ALGOMA' held aloft by The Rev. Philip Makokha, assistant to the Primate of Kenya. We will be seeing him again tomorrow, as he will bring us to lunch with the Primate. He made sure that we got safely to our bus and then led us in prayer before we made our way to the Methodist Guest House. Although it was late, the crew was peckish and gratefully received what was left over from the evening meal.
The beauty of Kenya is legendary, and we look forward to awakening to our new surroundings.
On July 2nd, a group of intrepid Anglicans from the Diocese of Algoma will embark on a journey to Africa. Our team will spend ten days with our partner diocese, Tarime, located just below Kenya and tucked up along the shores of Lake Victoria. Not for the phobic flyer, our journey will require more than twenty hours in the air and nearly four hours over land. We are thirteen in number and represent each of the five deaneries; are both clergy (6) and lay (7); both young (2 are under 25) and, uh, let's just say over 25.
In some respects, we will be tracing the steps of Anglican missionary forebears who, at the time of the founding of our own diocese late in the 19th century, sought to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the tribal cultures of East Africa. That good news took root and in the 1930s and 1940s an indigenous revival broke out that continues to bear fruit in the explosive growth of the church today. In 1985 there were twelve parishes in the region of northern Tanzania known as Mara. Twenty-five years later there were 150, and the region was split into three dioceses. Our partner diocese was formed in the western Serengeti in 2010 and has 29 parishes with 25 priests and 10,000 members, serving an overall population of 360,000. By comparison, we have 60 parishes, 40 priests and about 13,000 members.
When the Diocese of Tarime was established in 2010, an able priest called Mwita Akiri was the General Secretary and Chief Executive of the Anglican Church of Tanzania. With a PhD in church history from Edinburgh University, and as the founder of St John’s University of Tanzania, Archdeacon Mwita was widely respected across the Anglican Communion. He held influential positions in the Communion’s Finance and Administration Committee and Anglican Health Network. It was in his capacity as a delegate to the Anglican Consultative Council that I met him in Jamaica in 2009. As a new bishop myself in 2009, I was quick to approach him about a partnership when he was elected Bishop of Tarime in 2010, and he has visited our diocese twice since then.
Now, Bishop Mwita has a seemingly limitless capacity for engagement and is full of energy and entrepreneurial ideas. A visit was soon proposed and, under the careful and enthusiastic leadership of The Rev. Roberta Wilson-Garrett, has been taking shape. Since March 26th, the team has been receiving daily e-mails from her with practical and inspirational advice as we prepare ourselves for our visit. I think Bishop Mwita has met his enterprising match in Roberta!
While the daily assignments of work are still being considered, it is likely that our team will be involved in one or other of the chief priorities of the diocese. On the physical side, this may include assisting in the construction of churches. When he became bishop, Mwita made a rather rash promise that if a community built a church, he would supply roofing materials. Church buildings have now sprung up across the diocese and, at $4000-$6000 per roof, the bishop is scrambling to provide corrugated steel sheets that will both protect the buildings from the sun and assist in the collection of rain water. The Diocese of Algoma now has an agency agreement with the Diocese of Tarime which allows us to give charitable receipts to those who wish to donate towards the purchase of building materials. At the time of writing, I can report that the Diocese of Algoma has raised over $16,000 in support of Tarime projects, and I am both proud and full of gratitude.
But there are other important initiatives being undertaken in the diocese. These include programmes to empower women and girls economically; to advance reproductive health through HIV prevention and crusades against female circumcision; to improve farming and food security, and to promote peace in conflicted areas of the diocese. Already Bishop Mwita is laying plans for the establishment of an all-girls’ school.
The team, of course, is very excited about the trip and we are busy making last-minute preparations. But I had a conversation with Bishop Mwita a couple of weeks’ ago that has helped me to check my own expectations. ‘Brother Stephen,’ he said to me, ‘it would be a terrible thing if the good people of Algoma came to my diocese believing that they were going to help their poor brothers and sisters in Africa. This would be awful because we are not poor. We have the gospel!’
Bishop Mwita is right. Whoever possesses the gospel possesses a pearl of great price. And it is a sober reminder to me that while we in the west are materially wealthy, we are spiritually impoverished. I wonder if you would join me in praying that our encounter with our brothers and sisters in Tarime would enliven us both in the gospel, that, as we each come to share with the other our faith and gifts, we would discover Christ in our midst.
O Lord God, who wills that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of thy Son, our Saviour: Give thy Holy Spirit to the Diocese of Tarime and our mission team; that by the setting forth of Christ as Saviour many may find new life, and thy Church be extended and united in her true work of bringing the world to thee; in the name and power of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(adapted from a prayer from the Diocese of Uganda)
Bwana asifiwe! Praise the Lord!
I want to take the occasion of the renewal of our vows to express my gratitude for the pastoral dedication of the deacons, priests and lay incumbents of this diocese. God has been good in sending us ‘ministers to labour in this portion of his vineyard’, and as I think of each of you, your passion, devotion and sacrifice is what comes to mind. I want you to know that I pray for each of you on a regular basis, and that I count it a privilege to have you as colleagues in the service of the gospel.
This year I am mindful that some are celebrating their first Easter as Priests in the Church of God. Pam and Sherry, may you know the thrill of proclaiming the Easter message in word and sacrament this Triduum. At the same time, we have been saddened by losses, and we commend the Rev. H.A. Cooper, Dean Allan Reed, and the Rev. John McRae to God’s gracious keeping. We continue to uphold those in transition: the Revs Andrew Nussey, Mary Lucas, and Nancy Ringham. And we also pray for those newly (or about to be) retired (or re-retired): the Ven. Mark Conliffe; and the Rev. Richard and Archdeacon Linda White.
Our prayers remind us that we are a diocese in transition. Existing and impending parish vacancies, the recently completed assessment process and its implications in shaping the priorities of the diocese, the joys and trials of our ministries, these vicissitudes cause us to cast ourselves afresh on the mercy of God, in which we hope to find the grace and strength to carry on.
Now of course, divine mercy can take us by surprise, springing up suddenly in a form or at a time that it is not expected. But the staple of God’s mercy in the Christian life is to be found in the routine and the mundane. To be specific, just as the Church requires the prior work of mercy to bring it into being, so it is sustained in its being by the merciful gifts of word and sacrament (Article XIX). Maundy Thursday is the customary time when we reflect on these things. And both word and sacrament are features of our Epistle for today. The ‘word’ that we receive from God not only comes in the canonical text of St Paul’s letter, but, as he himself points out, from ‘the tradition which I handed on to you [which] came to me from the Lord himself’. That ‘tradition’, of course, is the institution of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, ‘that on the night of his arrest the Lord Jesus took bread’ (1 Cor. 11.23). This morning, I want to offer a few reflections on the place and meaning of the Eucharist in our life together.
I begin with an account of an acquaintance of mine who is a priest in a wealthy part of Oklahoma City. One day he paid a call on a sophisticated and well-to-do shut-in so that he could bring her Communion. When he got there, she was on the telephone. As he was laying out the communion vessels he heard her say, ‘I’m sorry dear, I am going to have to go. The minister has just arrived and he’s brought hors d’oeuvres!’
While I don’t believe that there are many in our own churches who would mistake the sacrament for snacks, I do believe that one of the unfortunate consequences of the 1960s Parish Communion Movement, the aim of which was to have the Holy Eucharist as the main celebration every Sunday, has been a diminished understanding of what the sacrament is and means. I confess that I find it troubling when I am told that people will not attend church on a Sunday if Communion is not offered, and when the suggestion is then made that we could solve this problem by licensing lay people to administer the reserve sacrament. I believe that this betrays a deficient understanding not only of the sacrament, but also of the priesthood, the value of the ministry of the word, and the sacred nature of those who assemble as the ‘one body’ of Christ (1 Cor. 10.17; 12.12-27; cf. 6.15).
Let us take, as a fairly innocuous example, the aumbries or tabernacles and sanctuary lamps that are features of many, if not most, of our churches. What purpose would people say that they serve? A majority would regard tabernacles simply as convenient places to store spare bread and wine – though many could not explain why they have locks on them. Lamps, on the other hand, are often regarded as bits of religious furniture with no practical function. A friend of mine was a priest in a rural Maritime parish, and in one of the points in his charge the tabernacle was an obstacle to movement in the small sanctuary, which made the administration of communion awkward. So he asked the parish leaders what it was. They weren’t sure, but they knew that the priest kept bread and wine in there. ‘Would it matter to anyone if we moved it to the sacristy, then?’ my friend inquired. ‘No. Go right ahead!’ they replied.
The irony of this, of course, is that tabernacles were originally designed to allow people to see the sacrament. Likewise, lamps were devised to alert worshippers to the fact that the sacrament was being reserved. When the Anglo-Catholic Movement introduced tabernacles and lamps to the Anglican Church some 160 years ago, it was because they wished to rehabilitate a spiritual tradition where the reserved sacrament served as an aid to prayer. Those of you of a more protestant bent will know that Article XXVIII states that ‘the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped’. But contemporary devotion before the sacrament is not to be understood as an expression of the superstition that so worried the Reformers. The elements of consecrated bread and wine are not in themselves the objects of adoration, but are meant to focus attention on Christ, really present in a material way in the world, and as such they act as channels of his grace. I wonder how many churches see these implements as invitations for a richer devotion.
So, even in our use of church furniture we have opportunities to teach our people, not only about the rich and interesting heritage of our Anglican tradition, but also about how they might deepen their understanding of and respect for the Eucharist. There is, of course, much more that could and should be said about these matters, but this is just a warm-up to something more substantial.
I have tried to illustrate how even our furniture reflects a more profound understanding of the Eucharist than many of our parishioners may be aware of. But let me get to a theological and ethical reality that is at the heart of the Lord’s Supper, because I think that this too is not well understood. Only here it involves not just a matter of the depth of our devotion, but the welfare of our very souls.
It is significant in my mind that when Karl Barth decided to write a treatise on the Lord’s Supper, his intention (and it was just an intention, for he never completed it) was to situate it in the broader context of a theology of reconciliation. There were doubtless good theological reasons for this. After all, the sacrament of the new covenant of Jesus’ blood is all about his sacrificial death which brought about our forgiveness and peace with God. But the theme of reconciliation also arises naturally from our Epistle.
One of the most remarkable features of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the way that it is capable of cutting across social lines. The church in Corinth embraced those from wealthy and impoverished backgrounds, those from Jewish and Greek cultures, and those who belonged to different political groups (‘I am for Apollos; I am for Cephas’). It is extraordinary that the earliest communion services brought such a diverse group of people together in their homes for a ritual meal. But there were problems. St Paul complains:
When you meet as a congregation, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat; when it comes to eating, each of you takes his own supper, one goes hungry and another has too much to drink. Have you no homes of your own to eat and drink in? (11.20-22, REB).
Some of the more affluent members of the church were treating the agape meal like a private dinner party, while the poorer believers were being marginalised. The prosperous appear to have been overindulging (even to the point of gluttony and drunkenness), while the rest went hungry.
Now if such a situation had been brought to the attention of your humble bishop, his approach, with the assistance of his trusty Executive Archdeacon, would have been to develop a policy or canon governing how the food is distributed. But the matter is too grave for a caterer to solve, as we learn from Paul’s elaboration a few verses later:
It follows that anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of offending against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone must test himself before eating from the bread and drinking from the cup. For he who eats and drinks eats and drinks judgement on himself if he does not discern the body. (11.27-29)
In Paul’s mind, the Corinthian problem is a spiritual issue, and not a procedural one. God’s new society will not tolerate the perpetuation of class distinction, and so St Paul upbraids the Corinthians, saying that they have not ‘discerned the body’, and warning them of the possibility of divine judgement.
Paul’s ultimate concern is with the integrity of ‘the Lord’s body’, and by this he means the Corinthians’ oneness in Christ. The sin of the Corinthians was that the sacrament of their unity with Christ should become the occasion of their disunity with one another; that the partaking of the emblems of their reconciliation with God should be the cause of their discord among themselves.
Now, although at one level we are mercifully free of the problem of the Corinthian church’s rudeness (we are, after all, polite Canadians who hold back from being first in line at the parish potluck), we ought to reflect for a moment on where we might fail to ‘discern the Lord’s body’. And here it grieves me to have to say that, for a Church that holds dearly to the Eucharist as the centre of its worship life, the prevalence of ill will and dissension in our fellowship invites the judgement of both God and the world.
I do not wish to be alarmist here. There is no scandal or crisis that, by human standards, makes us any worse than any other church. But when we cannot live the reconciled life, renouncing suspicion and competitiveness, and exhibiting generosity and forgiveness, we make a mockery of the sacrament and we hold out no hope to a broken and bitterly divided world. As the late Alan Lewis put it: ‘How might the fissured and fragmented world be expected to believe and know that for their sake God in love has sent the beloved Son, when confronted with the church’s endless splinterings [. . .]?’*
I realize that this is a hard word and not a comforting note on which to end my homily; but Holy Week is a hard week, and I do not apologize for being forthright. For it is only when we come to an honest appraisal of ourselves in all of our selfishness and pride, as painful as that might be, that we find ourselves opened up to receive the mercy of God in the sacrament of our forgiveness and reconciliation. For the welfare of our Church and our world, let us strive to make reconciliation a priority among us in the year to come. And let us pay close attention as I say,
DEARLY beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and living faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own condemnation, not discerning the Lord's Body. Judge therefore yourselves, that ye be not judged of the Lord; repent you truly for your sins past; have a lively and stedfast faith in Christ our Saviour; amend your lives, and be in perfect charity with all people; so shall ye be meet partakers of those holy mysteries. And above all things ye must give most humble and hearty thanks to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ, both God and Man; who did humble himself, even to the death upon the Cross, for us miserable sinners, who lay in darkness and the shadow of death; that he might make us the children of God, and exalt us to everlasting life. And to the end that we should alway remember the exceeding great love of our Master and only Saviour Jesus Christ, thus dying for us, and the innumerable benefits which by his precious blood-shedding he hath obtained to us; he hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries, as pledges of his love, and for a continual remembrance of his death, to our great and endless comfort. To him therefore, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, let us give (as we are most bounden) continual thanks; submitting ourselves wholly to his holy will and pleasure, and studying to serve him in true holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. Amen.**
*Between Cross and Resurrection: a theology of Holy Saturday (Eerdmans, 2001), p. 391.
**Exhortation on pp. 88f. of the Book of Common Prayer (1962).
Fawna and I were in Sudbury this weekend. The Church of the Epiphany is facing a significant challenge over the need to restore the building's deteriorating bricks. As the following sermon recounts, I was asked to pay a kind of solidarity visit. Such visits can be tricky. Not only is it that the evil one has a way of using such challenges to divide congregations, it is important that any expression of solidarity be clearly related to God's kingdom purposes in the world. After the service a special vestry was held and the congregation voted 74-0 to restore the building. We continue to pray, after the exhortation we heard from St Paul yesterday, that the good people of the Epiphany would 'set their minds on the Spirit, where there is life and peace' (Rom 11.6).
Here is my sermon on Ezekiel 37.1-14:
Fawna and I are very happy to be back at the Epiphany this morning. It feels as though it has been too long since my last visit. And I admit that I would probably not be here were it not for your Rector and Wardens. A few weeks back, I wrote a letter to the Epiphany leadership in an attempt to encourage them. It wasn’t altogether satisfactory. ‘A letter is not good enough,’ Nancy said, ‘We need a hug!’ So, here I am. I’ll be hugging all morning at the back of the church after the service! Peter, on the other hand, likely muttered to himself, ‘Where will hugs get us? What we need are architects, engineers and deep pockets!’ Sorry, Peter. I’m afraid that I’ve only got hugs to share. Hugs, that is, and perhaps, a word from God.
When Father Tim invited me to visit and preach, I looked at the lectionary and, behold, the Old Testament reading was the story of the Valley of Dry Bones, while the Gospel was the account of the Raising of Lazarus. I wrote to Tim asking whether there was a propitious message in these texts that the Epiphany needed to hear from their Rector. He replied, ‘If I can’t preach on that, then I ought to consider another line of work! But it is your pulpit, Bishop, and I know that they would appreciate a word from you.’ Well, there are two resurrection texts this morning. I have chosen the passage from Ezekiel. Tim, I leave Lazarus to you.
Now, I picked the Ezekiel 37 text because I have discovered that in 1987 it was this text that was chosen by Eric Paterson in the campaign to rebuild the Epiphany after her disastrous fire. I don’t know how the prophetic vision shaped that project, but it is curious that on the eve of another building challenge, a challenge that is every bit as daunting as the one faced in 1987, the story of God raising up an army from the bones of the dead should be among the assigned readings. Is there something we need to hear from this text? Something that will guide our thinking as we consider the momentous choices that lie before us? Let us see what we might learn.
It was January of 587 BC. In a strategy designed to suppress the rebellion of the stubborn Jewish kingdom of Judah, the powerful Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem. For over a year and a half, the city’s inhabitants held the menace at bay. But without any means of bringing food into the capital, severe hunger brought Jerusalem to her knees. During an attempted escape, Judah’s king, Zedekiah, was captured and hauled before the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah was made to watch the execution of his sons, and then his eyes were gouged out. Haunted by these gruesome images, Zedekiah spent the rest of his days with his countrymen in exile in the foreign nation of Babylon. Finally, on 14th August 586 BC, both the city of Jerusalem and its beautiful temple were burned to the ground. The Jewish bards sang the dirge, ‘By the rivers of Babylon, / there we sat down, yea, we wept, / when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137.1).
Now, among those sent into exile was a man called Ezekiel, the son of a priest. His name in Hebrew means, ‘God strengthens’, and it was through a series of profound religious experiences that Ezekiel became a source of divine strength to the deported Jews. His prophetic words gave hope, for he forecast that the Lord’s chosen would experience revival, restoration and a glorious future as the redeemed and joyous people of God. And I am here this morning to tell you that this same hope belongs to us. It belongs to us for three reasons: One, we live not in the world, but in the promises of God; two, the promises of God are about more than buildings; and three, the promises of God have an Easter factor.
So, to begin with, we live not in the world, but in the promises of God. We do, of course, live in the world. And the world we live in, for all of its comforts, is full of risk, compromise and disappointment. For the ancient Jews, this consisted in the daily reminder that they lived in exile. The memory of their once-great-but-now-desolate Jerusalem elicited the lament, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is gone, and we are cut off’ (v. 11). The sentiment is not unfamiliar to us. Where we imagined for ourselves a life of vigour and purpose, many find frustration and weariness. A lost job here, a broken relationship there, a failure of health and the prospect of death. For many this world has a bone-strewn surface, an image that is more literal than metaphorical in places like the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda. The challenges facing Epiphany seem trifling by comparison, but for those who are weary of dealing with one setback after another, it may seem as though our history is ‘just one damn thing after another’.
But this is not the perspective of God’s people. For us, history is not the ineluctable progression of random and deteriorating events. For us, history is what happens between promise and fulfilment. That is to say, history is our story caught up and comprehended by his story, God’s story. The details of this greater story are frequently opaque to the finite human mind, but we have it by God’s own word that the affairs of our lives are all ordered to a purpose that embodies the life of God himself. In our discouragement and disillusion, we may ask, ‘Can these bones live?’ God himself answers, ‘Prophesy over these bones; say: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord [. . .] you will live’ (vv. 4-5).
But what does it mean to live? What does it mean for the Church of the Epiphany to embody the life of God in the world? Our second point is that the promises of God are about more than buildings.
It is interesting to note that in our passage there are two stages in the regeneration of the slain army. In the first stage, God causes the sun-bleached remains to reassemble. Fitting together the 206 bones that make up the human body, skeletons begin to take shape, and these are then clothed with sinews and skin. But the scene is macabre, evoking images from ‘The Walking Dead’, for ‘there was no breath in them’. So in Ezekiel’s revelation there was more to come that would transform the vision from a terror into a wonder. In a second dramatic stage the wind is summoned from the four corners of the earth and life is breathed into the still frames, ‘and they came to life and rose to their feet, a mighty company’ (v. 10).
The wind, of course, is God’s own Spirit, for the words ‘wind’, ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are the same in Hebrew (ruach), and at the conclusion of the passage God says, ‘I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live’ (v. 14). The scene is reminiscent of God’s creative work at the beginning of time when the first human being is fashioned of earth and breath. What we witness in Ezekiel 37 thus amounts to a re-creation, with God himself as the in-spiration, the animating life force, restoring both the dispirited people and their forlorn faith (v. 6).
The vision is characteristic of the work of God in the world. A church like ours, rooted as it is in royal foundation and English common law, can occasionally forget that, without the Spirit of God, we are a lifeless corpse. We may believe that by plugging into our rich tradition and the natural friendliness and benevolence of our pew-mates, we show ourselves to be true Christians. We may even think that the work of God in Sudbury and our own welfare as a community of faith depends on the restoration of this building. But the vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones is about the embodiment of God’s Spirit in his people, about his ability to revive the destitute and powerless, and not about human achievement or the glorification of an institution. Ezekiel’s prophecy is not a template for a building campaign. It is an image of hope for African American slaves clinging to the belief that Dem Bones is a picture of their own future, when, in God’s freedom, ‘dem bones gonna walk around’. It is a vision of hope, too, for the people of the Epiphany, where the restoration of this building’s bricks is not confused with God’s mission of healing, reconciliation. You have heard it a thousand times before: this building does not embody Christ; you do.
So, we live not in the world, but in the promises of God; the promises of God are about more than buildings; and finally, the promises of God have an Easter factor.
Here I will be brief. Although the Old Testament does not have a fully developed notion of resurrection, the early church saw in Ezekiel’s vision a prophecy that applied to the whole cosmos. It was another apocalyptic writer, the writer of the Revelation, who understood that the vision of the Dry Bones was about the restoration of all things at the end of time. In the universal conflict with evil and death, where to every appearance it would seem as though victory belongs to the world, the flesh and the devil, the Seer tells us that the people of God shall feel the Spirit of God within them, and, after the fashion of their risen Lord, they shall rise to their feet and ascend to heaven in a cloud (Rev. 11.7-12). This is the glorious fulfilment of God’s promise that awaits us all.
But this is Lent. As much as we would wish to rush to the Empty Tomb and its attendant joy, as much as we would wish to exchange our snow shovels for garden trowels, we must endure the tribulation of this season a while longer. But the knowledge that the power of Easter is at work in the world means that we experience tribulation differently. Karl Barth perceived this with characteristic insight. He writes:
Thus our tribulation without ceasing to be tribulation is transformed. We suffer as we suffered before, but our suffering is no longer a passive perplexity, but is transformed into a pain which is creative, fruitful, full of power and promise. The road which is impassable has been made known to us in the crucified and risen Lord (from his commentary on Rom. 8.35, 37).
The challenges facing the Church of the Epiphany – no, the challenges facing the Church of God in these days – are painful. But because of the Easter factor there is an embedded reality that our pain can be ‘creative, fruitful, full of power and promise’.
I conclude. Many talk today of the death of the Christian Church. And, to be frank, the vital signs in Canada are not good. Can these bones live? That depends on whether or not we live in the promises of God; whether or not we realise that the promises of God are about more than buildings; and whether or not we make room for the Easter factor.
Some men were having a conversation about death and dying. The question came up, ‘What would you want people to say about you at your funeral?’ One replied, ‘I’d want people to say, “He was a great and compassionate humanitarian who cared about those in need.”’ A second one said, ‘I’d want people to say, “He was a good father and husband, whose life was a fine example for others to follow.”’ A third answered, ‘I’d like them to say, “Look, he’s moving!”’
I don’t know what is in store for the Epiphany. You folks have some difficult decisions to make. I will not prejudice the discussion by favouring one option over another. But I will say that death is not an option where God’s Spirit is present. I want to assure you of my prayers and support in whatever you decide, in the hope that, with or without a building, the people of Sudbury will point with astonishment and say, ‘Look, they’re moving!’ Amen.