St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver,  B.C.

Sermon

March 12th 2017  Lent 2                                                 John Marsh

or Random Thoughts Concerning the 3rd Way of Jesus                                                                      

                                

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

 

 

When a great moment knocks on the door of your life it is often no louder than the beating of your heart and it is very easy to miss it.

Boris Pasternak, Letter to Olga

~

With today’s Genesis story, we introduce figures of mythic stature, of archetypal importance¹

Abraham is looked upon by three interrelated religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam - as our father²

Truth be told, I have no trouble including Sarah, in fact it should be said that, in faith, Abraham and Sarah are our parents…

As parents, they represent the best of us, they embody the worst of us…

Their actions, their choices expressive of hope acknowledging risk but nevertheless, acting on hope, of faith opening to the unknown, the stranger, the foreigner, the alien…

At other times, they embody fear directing our energies, hostility undergirding faith, the collapse of god into the nation, the tribe, of the sacred understood territorially…   

Abraham and Sarah, leaving the walled safety of Ur becoming ‘wandering Arameans’, embraced at times the hospitality of welcome and compassion, giving way at other times to hostility and exclusion, bouncing between compassion and xenophobia – literally ‘fear of the stranger’ - feelings enacted both physically, religiously, spiritually…

To illustrate, Abraham, seeing the approach of three strangers, possibly of persons of hostility, carrying the real risk of the unknown, the unforeseeable, discerns, decides and runs to meet them, welcomes them, offering the friendship of the feast…

Abraham and Sarah, resisting hostility, offer hospitality, glimpsing within the welcome, something more, sensing that these three may be more than strangers, aliens, the act of hospitality offering glimpses of god, the promise of new life (the unexpected birth of Isaac) …

At other times, closure calls, compassion collapses, and Hagar and Ishmael – the story of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham is itself a convoluted tale – are cruelly driven into the uncertainty of the wilderness, fear is favoured over relationship and grace…

With his son Isaac bound on an altar, Abraham confronts the allure of territorial gods demanding compliance no matter the violence of blood sacrifice; instead Abraham, not without struggle, releases and receives Isaac back as a gift, affirming life over death. That the possible death of Isaac is replaced by the actual death of a ram raises yet other tensions within sacred narratives, tensions over the nature of sacrifice. Does god wish blood offerings or attending to the orphan and widow, the sojourner, attending to issues of justice, wealth distribution, power imbalances, hunger?

As sacred story moves on, there is the continual struggle between hospitality and hostility, between calls to welcome, respect, honour all those embodying vulnerability, defencelessness or, calls to banish, conquer or kill in god’s name…

Within the bible are stories suggesting that the stranger, the other, the one ‘with nowhere to lay their head’, may be the human persona of the divine; yet, there other stories speaking violence, of hostility exercised in the name of god…

Within the Abrahamic stories, within biblical narratives, are stories of both violent conflict and peaceful embrace. Is it not we who are called to decide, to place a wager of faith, choosing an hermeneutic reading - is god found within acts of compassion or murder? Where are we within the matrix of Abraham and Sarah, are we within the heartless banishment of Hagar and Ishmael or within the hospitable reception of aliens from nowhere?

Within our religious traditions, we have a history embracing both; within bible stories are differing ways of responding to the stranger, the vulnerable. For every Francis of Assisi there is an Inquisitor, for every Benedictine legacy of communal hospitality to the stranger, there is the Crusades, for every flesh and blood heeding of love and compassion there are obsessive fantasies of ‘pie in the sky’…

It would seem that it is ours to decide³...

Lent is a time to set our eyes on the ambiguities of Abraham and Sarah, to fix our gaze on the contradictions within sacred narrative, to embrace ambiguities within ourselves, contradictions within choices at times deemed laudatory, at other times, condemnatory, sometimes deemed both…

Lent is a time to affirm continual choices, continual reorientations, necessary course corrections, a time of renouncing ‘once and for all’ decisions, a time proclaiming there is no singular event of being ‘born again, Amen,’ but only events, choices, possibilities within choices being raised over, and over again, choices pressing in, raising hopes, risking failure, inaction…

To use the language of the gospel, we are called to openings, openings of being born again and again, of being born anew, repeatedly, if we so choose…

To use more contemporary language, we are called to choose hermeneutic readings, readings of hospitality and openness or readings of closure and exclusion…

Lent is a time of honesty, laying down, as much as possible, our defensive postures, our closures, perhaps opening to the possibility of inconvenient truths, truths sometimes inconveniently carried by those deemed other…

~

As with last week so too this week, a story or two. While the stories may lack originality, they involve the laying down of expectations, that they involve ‘money’, a slippery issue if there ever was one, makes them, at least to my mind, even more compelling.

Dr. Ken Lemon, despite the title, was an accountant, a managing partner of Clarkson Gordon, a large national accounting firm. Dr. Lemon, as he was always called after the conferring of an honorary degree, was the treasurer of the largest parish in the diocese. While but an appointed position, serving at the discretion of warden’s and priest, ‘Dr. Lemon’ effectively ran the parish, the wardens and priest deferring to him. If he agreed, it would happen, if not, it would not. He had power and authority and he exercised it. He was forceful, clear, expecting responsibility, demanding accountability. At times, in my opinion, he could be domineering, perhaps bullying, dismissive, at times demeaning. He ran a ‘tight ship’, exercising control of the parish through resolute control of the purse strings.

On one occasion, my parish, neighbouring the parish of ‘Dr. Lemon’, was shocked to discover that two refugee families numbering 11 individuals, were due to arrive in a month. Being new to the parish, I knew nothing of this and discovered that, many years before, this sponsorship was undertaken but, being constantly delayed, fell through the cracks. If we were to accept these families, we needed to raise $40,000 in a month. We set out to do so and we did. Monies came in from the parish community and from others in the area.

Needing to report on our fund raising, I wanted to include a description of the range of gifts given to our refugee drive. Our treasurer handed me the file, saying that the information was within. The first sheet contained the needed information and it showed that the distribution was to be expected with one exception. There was one gift of $10,000, five times the amount of the next nearest contribution. My surprise became shock, when turning over the page, I saw who donated that amount – Dr. Ken Lemon!

 

Joan Flaherty was one not uncommon within the parish. She was a widow living alone, kind, friendly, unassuming, of no discernible wealth. To all intents and purposes, an elderly, middle class, perhaps lower middle class woman, faithful not flashy. One year, preparing for a stewardship campaign, we analysed the distribution of envelope giving. Alone, at the top, far outstripping the business people, doctors, a lawyer or two, the usually assumed sources of income, was Joan, almost singlehandedly supporting significant increases in our pastoral and outreach budgets, embodying not the widows’ mite, but the widows’ might.

Do these stories change anything, perhaps not?

Do they change everything, perhaps so?

 

 

¹ It should be obvious from context that by mythic, I do not mean that which is false but that which is profoundly true.

 

² Our shared histories suggest serious dysfunction, perhaps indicating much needed therapy

³ Truthfully, not all strangers are harbingers of the holy. While some bring peace and blessings, others bring acts of violence sometimes enacted in the name of god. To adopt a hermeneutic of hospitality need not require naiveté. We must discern, decide, and risk getting it wrong! Perhaps only god is capable of unconditional, indiscriminate hospitality – we’re not god.