Monday, 24 February 2014

Foundations, Rules and Temples

Epiphany 7 (2014) Year A RCL Principal

Foundations, Rules & Temples

God is here!

Remember that? Those three words, our words for the presentation, a reminder that God is a part of our community and found in one another. They aren’t bad words to call to mind as we go into our Annual Vestry meeting and indeed as I share something of my understanding of what our Church order and governance consist of .

I should say that when I put the question out a couple of weeks back ‘would you like me to say something about what our Church structures are’ the response was quite overwhelmingly ‘yes please’  in fact I only had one person say no and that was because, as they said. “People really should come to the vestry meeting to find out”.  I can see the logic in that, but I think that it might be worth saying something of why vestry is important to encourage you all to come and take part in this part of the life of our Church fellowship.

I want to mix this up a little with my reflections on today’s readings.  Because, and this does make me wonder whether God is just demonstrating her great sense of humour, these readings couldn’t really be better suited to this vestry Sunday.

St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians isn’t a bad reading to begin some thoughts on Church structures and order.  Paul is desperate for the first fledgling churches to survive and flourish, and recognises that to achieve this there needs to be some kind of order.  In certain parts of these letters to the Corinthians Paul expresses his concern about the disorder, particularly in worship, that is putting people off the church – and though Paul’s writings, much to the delight of many literalists – say things which we might find uncomfortable, the background is that he longs for the Church to be a shining example of faithfulness, ordered and exemplars of good conduct – all for the sake of spreading the Gospel, that people will not be turned off by the chaos of a disordered and (as he sees it) immoral church!  We could spend a lot of time contextualising, debating, arguing Paul’s teaching, but I do believe the principle of sound governance isn’t a bad one. 

Even more though, Paul holds the Church up as something rather special.  The Church community is a place where the Spirit dwells – God is here says St Paul. 

What a difference it would make to all of us if we behaved in such a way that honoured this fact.  That we looked at one another and said ‘God’s Spirit is in that person’. 

I’m not going to labour the point further, but the basis of Church order is this belief that the Spirit dwells in each of us, and the desire to be built upon the foundation of Christ.  And St Paul is very keen to talk about each one of us having our place – you are being built into a living temple, each one of you living stones(though I pinched that particular phrase from Peter’s first letter), with the spirit within you.  It’s worth noting that the form of the pronoun ‘you’ is a the plural form here – in verse 16 of Chapter 3 of 1 Corinthians ‘you (all of you) are God’s temple and God lives in you (that’s all of you).  There is something about acknowledging that the spirit is known in us together as well as individually that I think is crucial for our understanding of being a community – of being dedicated to one another in this exciting, but also challenging journey ahead.

Being in community comes with a cost, a discipline about it.  We are challenged to look beyond ourselves and commit ourselves to this wider endeavour, this act of being bound together, of loving one another, of being the body of Christ.
And in this particular expression of the Church that we call Anglicanism, we have structures that are meant to help us in that, we have rules called the Canons which are there to hold the disparate parts of each parish and of the church at large together, to give us (in the words I have used frequently in the past months) a sense of the bigger story, and our part within it.

So what do I mean, you say? Enough about principles and St Paul. What do we do? How is this worked out? I promised you some info about the governance of the Church so here it comes. 

I must just make a confession here, though.  As an incumbent and Rural Dean in England I was often called upon to give advice regarding canon law, because I have a particular interest in these things and a surprising love of Church Order. For about 13 years I have been offering advice on the understanding and interpretation of the Canons, the rules and regulations of the Church, and have made sure I am well versed in the legal grounding for the Churches structures. I am a canon law nerd.  I am, though, learning a new set of canons, and though I have read and re-read the canon law of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Diocese of BC, I am not as experienced in them as I am with the C of E.  I read the canons again yesterday and I am basing this stuff on my newly gained knowledge – apologies for any gaps…  but here we go.

Well, first of all the Anglican Church is – and I quote, though I am not sure who I quote – ‘Episcopally led and synodically governed’.  That means that the Church heeds the voice of our bishop in whom there is vested a certain amount of authority.  When we elect a Bishop – with the help of the Holy Spirit – we expect her, or him, to lead us.  The Bishops hold the role of both leading and serving the Church – they assist in the formulation and they uphold the canons, they have a pastoral role, they speak on behalf of the Church and they uphold clergy discipline. 

But we are a Church which also operates with certain democratic or at least pseudo-democratic structures.  The idea of a Synod is a gathering of the people of God. The word simply means ‘assembly’.  It is often used to refer to a gathering of Christian Leaders, but in our Church we would (taking the principle that we are all priests and rulers in the church of God) say that the synod is us.  The basic unit of a synod, for all practical purposes, is a Parochial Council acting on behalf of vestry, the body elected for oversight of the Church. 

Other synods in the Anglican Church of Canada are the Diocesan Synod which consists of member selected from parishes and the General Synod which is the gathering of representatives from all over the Anglican Church of Canada.  Ultimately, in partnership with Bishops and Clergy the Synods officially run the Church. The wider Synods formulate policy and have responsibility for the finance, discipline, mission and ministry of the Church.  Oh it’s worth saying that Synods consist of three houses – the Bishops, Clergy and Laity.  Usually it is expected on matters of policy or business that all three houses will vote separately but each must reach a majority for or against the policy or proposal.

Our Synod is basically our Vestry, but it would be impractical to meet as the general gathering of parishioners all of the time, so the Vestry gives authority to the PC to act as its regular committee.  Alongside that are the Treasurer, Secretary who sit on the PC but don’t have voting rights unless they are elected as PC members. Then we have the ex officio members:  the Diocesan Synod reps who may be the wardens and maybe one or two others and the Wardens.  We have six Diocesan Synod reps, two from the current PC and the two wardens and deputy wardens.

And then we have the delight that is our wardens!  Officially we have two – one people’s warden and one rector’s warden.  As might be obvious, the people’s warden is elected by vestry and the rector’s warden is appointed by the rector.  Because of the size and activity of St John’s we also have two deputies to that position, elected or appointed in the same way.  Wardens are there to support the Rector – and by extension other Clergy and staff – in making sure the ministry of the Church continues. 

Wardens have a consultative role and they have legal responsibilities in relation to the supervision and reporting of financial matters, making sure there is regular worship and that the Rector is paid and housed. Which is good.  The Wardens are to represent the people to the Rector and the Rector to the people – seeking to consult and consider the needs of the congregation and to make sure the Rector has what she or he needs to fulfil their ministry to the Parish.  If things go terribly wrong then the wardens are the ones who report to the Bishops that there are difficulties and who seek the counsel of the Bishop for extraordinary needs. They are also the ones who sign contracts on behalf of their church. Thank God for wardens. And I mean that most sincerely.  St John’s wardens have much to bear, and they have worked diligently in the vacancy and in my first months here to discharge their responsibilities faithfully, thank you.

So what are we doing in vestry later on this morning, well after our soup and bun (thank you to those who have prepared this) we will hear the annual reports of all the officers and staff of the Church. We will hear about our finances and vote on our financial report of the last year and on our proposed budget.  We will also elect new members to the PC and hear of the appointment of a new Rector’s warden. Though Wardens can serve for up to six years, and then have to stand down for a year at least, it has been usual for wardens here to serve for three years, sometimes four.  PC members usually stand for two years extendable to three. We are electing three new parish council members this year who will be proposed at vestry by the nominations committee before opening to the floor.  It may be that in the years to come we need to revisit this method as the church and the world around it seem to change at a mindboggling speed – but for now we are sticking with this model which is not dictated by canon but comes within the canonical structure.

There is a misconception, and it is a misconception, that the PC and wardens are somehow distinct from the congregation, or (and I have heard the phrase used) they are ‘the suits’ who make decisions in darkened rooms which affect us all.  This is not the case – our wardens and our PC are members of our congregation, faithful members of the everyday life of the church and they work hard to listen and respond to both encouragements and criticisms which come from the wider parish – please make use of your PC representatives and our wardens, they offer themselves graciously in service of the parish and I know – like all of us – only want the very best for our Church.

Any questions (it’s unusual, I know, but I do feel I should allow you to ask for any clarifications you might need to ask for – though there will be time for that both before and after vestry)?

I hope this gives some idea of how we do things, I do want to end by saying a little bit of why.  In our reading from Leviticus we have a little glimpse of some of the law of the Jewish faith which is the foundation of our own faith.  You might question both with regards to the canons and structures of the church and in this passage why we take any account of the law at all because surely Jesus takes away all that need to follow the Hebrew law?  Well, that’s a good point, but it is important to note that these structures, these laws are for our benefit – not to constrain but to free us from the fear of knowing what we can and can’t do.  They take away the uncertainty and subjectivity of the way we often act and offer us a shape and boundaries to our activities.

The reasoning behind the Jewish law was to give the people of God standards to live by – which is why in our lesson from Leviticus we don’t just get a bit of religious mumbo-jumbo but real, challenging, practical demands – do not defraud, take care of the needy by allowing them to share in your harvest, nurture and make allowances for the physically less able, don’t hate, learn to live together. Follow God’s standards.

It comes back to our calling to live together in love, to see Christ in one another, to recognise the Spirit between and within us.  And as human beings we sometimes forget how to do that, we sometimes need the checks and balances that these structures provide.  And behind all this, if we were to delve into our Gospel (which I will do only for a moment) we realise that God’s standards are very high indeed, that we might even say they are greater than we could ever achieve – to be holy, to be set aside, even to be perfect.  This is our calling, and I don’t think I’ve reached it, perhaps we feel we have.  Behind all this structure is an acknowledgement that sometimes it doesn’t all go as well as we would hope and long for, and that sometimes we let each other down. 

And along with all of that comes the promise of grace, of the Spirit of God living within us who says ‘I love you’.  The God who calls us to perfection doesn’t demand that we confine ourselves to rules and regulations, though we may accept they can be helpful, but does promise to strengthen, to guide, to inspire, to love and where necessary to remind us that we are forgiven. 

As a community may we be a place where love reigns, and as we together wrestle with faith, and what it means to be people of faith in a changing world, may we be open to one another, graceful and respectful of one another and willing to bear with the structures – and where necessary challenge them – in order that we can be an effective and safe church, a place where we can explore the depths of being in God and know that there are things, even rules and regulations, that seek to give us the safe space we need.


Sunday, 2 February 2014

Struggles with Suffering

Presentation (2014) Year A RCL Principal

A Sword Will Pierce your Own Heart also

God is here!

You’ve already heard that phrase a few times this morning.  That bold proclamation which is the foundation of today’s Gospel reading – when Anna and Simeon encounter the baby Jesus and proclaim ‘God is here’ – both in word and in action.  Simeon through the words we have come to know as the Nunc Dimitus, Anna with words of praise and speaking of all that the child would accomplish.

These proclamations, which are – Luke is keen to point out – fully the work of the Holy Spirit (a theme that will crop up again and again in Luke’s Gospel)  burst in on the activity of Joseph and Mary as they seek to fulfil the holy law and offer the sacrifice due.  God is here.  God is here in this child, in this place, in this activity, in the promise of who Jesus is, in the embracing of those outside of the expectations of the day (notably the gentiles), in this act of taking, blessing and sharing.

Just as an aside, these are the formal actions of the Eucharist – that the bread and wine is ‘taken’, ‘blessed’ and ‘shared’ – and in my understanding of this sacrament, and one I believe is the common Anglican understanding, it is in the sharing, the communion, that this sacrament is made efficacious, in which the moment of grace is present.  It is not in what the presider does, not in the words we say, but in the sharing.

So Simeon takes Jesus into his arms, says words of blessing, and then shares the truth of who Jesus is with all who are there and gives Jesus to his parents who in turn will share him with the world. 

But the words Simeon says are not easy words, not just about how amazing Jesus was, they are words of departing ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.’ And they are words which discern the end of Jesus’ ministry, the inevitable consequence of confronting this world with the reality of God, as Simeon says to Mary words which have resonated with me for years, but particularly since considering these verses for this week “so that the hearts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul also’ – or indeed in some translations of verse 35 of chapter 2, your heart will be pierced (though the Greek word psyche, which is used in this verse, is most commonly translated soul it means essence, the seat of who we are, our very being, the heart of things)
This time of amazement and wonder – there was a lot of amazement and wonder going on in these passage and in the preceding passages in Luke, was also a time which presaged pain and suffering, of struggle and even (for those of us who know the end of the story) despair and death.

One of the hardest conversations any Christian can have, and it’s one I (and I am sure we all) have repeatedly, is about suffering.  The questions ‘why does God allow suffering?’ or even worse ‘is God testing me’ or the really difficult one ‘what is the meaning of this suffering?’ crop up again and again.

The reason I put them in that order is because I think that as we move from one of those to another we betray a certain vision of God which I suspect most of us would not, indeed could not, buy into. So I am not going to answer them in any logical order but to say something about suffering, meaning, testing, the will of God and all that in a kind of messy blob – because that is what this is, messy, difficult, heart breaking, heart piercing.

There is some stuff that I feel I can say boldly.  I suspect some interpreters would disagree with me, but I am going to say these with absolute conviction.  These things are:
God does not cause suffering nor direct it at us. But nor does God stop suffering.
God does not want us to suffer.
God did not want Jesus to suffer in order to take his anger at sin out on someone.
God does not cause us to suffer (or avoid suffering) due to our behaviour, good or bad.
God does not have a plan for you and I that includes trying us through suffering, leading us through pain and teaching us by making us suffer.

Oh boy, this is a big subject, perhaps I should have allowed a few more weeks for this.  All I can do is offer some of my own understanding, using the scriptures from today and the wider picture I feel comes from Scripture, the tradition of the Church, the reason and heart that we have as Christ followers, and indeed Christ bearers.

We see in both the Luke and Hebrews readings for today a lot of reference to things which are uncomfortable for us to consider and which on first look might jar with our understanding of a loving, gracious God.  Or at least that point us towards theologies that might jar!

First of all we have in Hebrews a theology of sacrifice which uses this word ‘atonement’. Now when linked with the word ‘substitutionary’ atonement it comes to mean that Jesus suffered in our place.  Some would even go so far as to say that God demanded punishment for the sin in the world and that Jesus stepped in to assuage God’s anger and suffered for our sins in order to deflect God’s wrath from us.  That is a vast oversimplification of the understanding of penal substitution, but it’s not an unfair one.  Sin causes God anger, God cannot live with sin, sin must be paid for, and Jesus paid the price.

No.  Just no.  It’s a theology that seems to suggest that God can’t forgive without someone getting it in the neck.  That mercy can only happen if a certain set of circumstances are fulfilled.  That somehow suffering is necessary for God to love us. 

It’s a theology that can’t cope with the idea that things happen just because they happen.  One of the hardest things that Christians seem to struggle with getting to grips with is that God might not control everything that happens.  Perhaps stuff happens because things happen.  On a philosophical level, if we truly believe that God gives us freedom, then the concept of God guiding every act and consequence contradicts that idea completely. 

In my youth there were a series of movies based on the mythology of ancient Greece – Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, that kind of thing – they often had the groundbreaking work of Ray Harryhausen and his stop motion animation – but that’s my inner nerd showing… Anyway, one of the most striking images that repeatedly appeared in these movies was that of the Gods playing chess with the lives of Perseus, or Jason or whoever – moving him and his companions around on a chessboard on a whim, controlling and manipulating every move.

That is not the teaching of the Christian Church. 

It’s a view that absolves us from responsibility – an immature view that prevents us from being truly adult and taking credit and blame for our own lives.  I think it was CS Lewis who once wrote ‘God and the Devil get a lot of credit for things they have nothing to do with.’

And it’s hard to let go of the idea that a God who is all-powerful, infinite, all knowing and all loving – that understanding of God rooted deep in Christian tradition and philosophy – it is hard to let go of the idea of control, that everything happens ‘for a reason’.  As if God uses suffering and pain to teach us – like an angry parent standing over us saying ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson’. 

Well that’s a deeply inadequate view of God.
It’s much harder to get to the point where we join with the writer of Ecclesiastes and say ‘meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’ – or as another translation says ‘useless, useless’.  Sometimes all we can do is look at suffering and say it is meaningless, there is no reason, God is NOT trying to teach us something through it.  God is not getting us to fit into a plan, God is not causing suffering to teach us something.  God does not say that so and so gets ill and so and so gets rich either because of their wickedness or their righteousness, or in order that they might grow, spiritually, through the experience.

BUT – and this is the witness I find in Scripture – God is with us in all things, in joy and in suffering.  Alongside us, suffering with us, heartbroken, soulpierced.  The God who chooses to act through and in us, is the same God who is with us and in us in good and bad. 

This God was alongside Christ in all he went through, but did not make it happen in order to satisfy some kind of heavenly bank account against which there was a debt.  When we hear that Christ is a Sacrifice there is an aspect of self-offering, of self-giving that was the result of Jesus absolute commitment to the values of God and the life of what we call the reign of God.  Jesus’ dying was a result of his dedication to the outcast and the unloved, to the truth of God in all things and the calling to justice and the removal of those things which drew people away from God.  He spoke out against injustice and intolerance, and the misuse of power for personal, political or religious ends.  This was why he was executed, not to satisfy an angry God who needed appeasing.

That was why a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. Because this commitment to the truth would bring Jesus to death and suffering.

It reminds us too that as Christians we are not exempt from suffering, we don’t – as this community knows – get an easy ride because we are people of faith.  In fact if we are committed to the values of Christ then we too find ourselves in danger of suffering, even to the point of vilification and pain. 

Even within the discipline of opening ourselves up the God we will find things that might cause us pain – facing up to the things which turn us inwards to the exclusion of others, of God and of that which is best for us.  I believe that is the judgement which Malachi talks of, not the kind of judgement often held of God looking at humankind and saying ‘you are bad and need punishing’ but a judgement which says ‘you are graced, come to me that I may give you life’. In the adversarial view of justice which our contemporary society holds we see the judge as adjudicating between right and wrong, in the view which seems more consistent with scripture the Holy Spirit is described as an advocate, speaking for us, encouraging, enlivening, bringing hope and affirmation.  In an adversarial judicial system someone must be punished, in an advocate system, reconciliation and healing is the mark of true justice.

So, we come back to the opening of my thoughts, and of the introduction to this day.  I believe that these readings, with their talk of suffering and pain, of atonement and judgement, hold a very positive message behind them – the one I began with. God is here!

God is here alongside the one who is broken by suffering. 

God is here alongside the one called to stand up for what is good and right, no matter what the cost.

God is here with those whose path of faith is a struggle.  And with those whose path is a joy.

God is here, even when suffering is meaningless, when there is no reason for bad things happening.

God is here as we share, and support and love and care and speak and struggle, and pray and hope and cling to faith. 

God is here.