HOMILY: 27 August 2017—Celebrating the Body Communal
In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
Today must be my lucky day. It doesn’t happen often enough that preachers are given the perfect text for the perfect occasion, but today is one of those times. On my last official Sunday with you as your Interim Priest-in-Charge, the words of St. Paul from his letter to the Church at Rome say pretty much all that a retiring priest could possibly want to impart to his congregation at such a time. I might as well just sit down and be quiet. Paul has already stolen my thunder, as he is wont to do on most occasions. I won’t hold it against him, however. I want to use Paul as a springboard, because he says some rather important things in this text about celebrating the meaning of Christian community.
Let me begin in what is perhaps an unexpected place by quoting one of my favourite poets, Walt Whitman, in words that may be familiar to you: “I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (…) Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world. (…) Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.” While Whitman may be known as the great poet of the democratic ideal, his words and images are really not all that far from the sentiments expressed by St. Paul. Both are concerned with human community amongst equals, and with the ways in which this experience of community, whether religious or political, can become a source of creative energy: a procreant urge—or, in the words of St. Paul, “…what is good and acceptable and perfect.” As words of goodbye, I can’t think of a more sincere wish or hope for this “good” and life-giving community of Christ Church Cathedral, a community that has sustained and fed me for so many years.
But what exactly is it that Paul wants to remind us about the grace given to us by living in Christian community? I would like to highlight two. First, there is that wonderful phrase: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” It touches upon the counter-cultural nature of the Christian message. I believe this will become an increasingly pressing reality and need in a world that seems to care less-and-less for the resplendent light of truth. Secondly, Paul reminds us, once again, of the special strength and beauty found in difference as a source of unity. Why do our churches and our societies have such a hard time appreciating this? It’s a recurring challenge, and one that we, as persons who call ourselves Christians, are called to answer time and time again, with ever increasing frequency and urgency.
Throughout history, the Church has generally assumed its social role in one of two ways: either as an institution of what we might call “world-maintenance,” a more conservative or traditional role, or as an agent of the prophetic imagination, a source of opposition and change. Paul is quite clear on which side of this binary tension he falls: on the prophetic one. For him, faith in Jesus necessitates that we stand and even exist outside normal social expectations. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This may strike us as an exciting prospect, or perhaps as a daunting and frightening one. Surely, Paul is not expecting us to live totally outside or apart from the world we inhabit, even though that has been tried numerous times with mitigated success. Rather, Paul is reminding us of some essential truths: that the way of the world is not always and everywhere God’s way, and is very often contrary to it; that we need to become critically aware of this by a genuine renewal and regeneration of our way of thinking and acting; and that this will ensure that we live according to God’s values of goodness and perfectibility. In other words, we are summoned to prophecy and to…contrariness. Yes, contrariness: a holy and sacred defiance, a kind of edgy engagement with our world from the eager perspective of an outsider.
Being an outsider can give one the advantage of critical insight, in addition to a sense of freedom in one’s actions. One may not generally think of cathedrals as great places of contrariness—they tend to be rather staid—but I encourage you to think of this particular cathedral as such a place. In fact, we’ve already been there for quite some time. Think of the “firsts” in terms of women’s ordination, support for LGBT ministry and same-sex marriage, a real openness and outreach to our French-speaking compatriots, a passionate and sustained commitment to social justice issues. For years, we’ve been hearing God’s call to the discernment of the divine will and the renewing of our minds. What we have been doing goes well beyond Christian charity—a rather paternalistic notion—and comes closest to a prophetic reframing of Christian identity. I therefore echo St. Paul’s wish for you that you persist in living as a community in non-conformity with the world, always walking defiantly in front of it, pushing it to meet God’s highest standards, and not its own limited and problematic ones.
Paul’s second theme, that of unity in diversity, may be a familiar and even a clichéd one. We’ve heard it referred to so often, that we may lose a sense of its deep and rich meaning. Why is Paul reminding us of the remarkable panoply of gifts among us—still found in this church here today—and to what use should we put them? Christian community is nothing if not a gathering of difference.
God has given each one of you a special grace, a unique gift, in support of the ongoing life of this Christian community. Paul is reminding us of this for two reasons: because we so often tend to forget, but more importantly so that we can actually do something with these gifts, which we so often simply neglect. Paul’s rather daunting list goes from the somewhat ethereal to the more mundane, from prophecy to cheerfulness. This is not meant to imply any sort of hierarchy, but is meant more as a kind of exemplary sampling. The important message here is that every Christian community needs a wide and diverse offering of gifts and graces to function effectively in its fulfillment of God’s mission. Just like the human body and its multiple parts, to come back to one of Paul’s favourite metaphors. And the human body, in its richly interconnected parts, is a beautiful thing to behold. Just like the godly and richly diversified Christian community. It too is a beautiful thing to behold, because it speaks the language of God. And God, who is many yet ultimately one, always speaks the language of beauty and human goodness.
In my years among you, I have consistently been surprised—astonished is perhaps a better word—by how much your gifts and graces are strong and resilient and iridescent. You probably aren’t aware of this in all its human complexity, but we, as your priests and lay leaders, experience it all on a regular basis. I have seen people come to this church because other churches have ostracized, or rejected, or simply ignored them. I have seen gay men come to this church because they have borne the brunt of Christian homophobia elsewhere. I have seen believers come to this church because their own tradition no longer spoke to them, and because it was always judging them. I have seen non-believers come to this church because the liturgy, or the music, or the words of welcome and support of one of you touched them in some particularly deep and powerful way. Last Sunday, a man suffering from cancer thanked me, with tears in his eyes, for how we have offered him hope and comfort in confronting his fears at this time in his life. We probably don’t even recall when or how we may have done this. No matter. God’s work is being done here. God’s grace is being dispensed here. God’s hospitality is being shared here. And God’s abundant love is being widely and indiscriminately spent here. This is the mark of truly effective Christian community: that it never worries about losing something in giving too much of itself.
Perhaps I should simply end with the words of advice that Paul himself gave to his distant Christian community in Rome: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” These words, however, don’t really sound like me. Far be it from me to caution you about how you should think about yourselves. I don’t know how priests got away with that in the past. But I will say this. The injunction to judge soberly about the specific gifts you have been given by God in support of the life of this Cathedral community, and then putting these gifts to work in advancing God’s mission, is most certainly a wise and valuable piece of advice. It is far more than that, however. It is also my departing wish for you. May God bless you ever more abundantly in your non-conformity to the ways of this world. And may all continue to find here a place of comfort and hope, a balm for bruised souls, a stop on the way to some new home, and ultimately a gathering of God’s good people.