Third Sunday after Pentecost
Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
This morning we started out by singing what to me is a completely familiar hymn. The version I learned starts out, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below.” It used to be called Old 100th or The Doxology, and in the small-town Presbyterian church where my Aunt Jeanne was organist from the age of 16 until her retirement at, I think, 75, they sang it every Sunday while the ushers walked forward carrying the plates that held the weekly collection.
I was always struck by the fact that as people were giving their money to the church they were singing a song of praise to God for God’s blessings. It was to my mind something of a paradox—and also quite educational!
So when I saw that hymn in the bulletin for today, I thought it was a wonderful choice for this Sunday because we are bringing forward to God the completion of a project that began taking shape many years ago.… the restoration of the spire of this church. Some of you weren’t even here when this project began. I can remember a long-time faithful churchwarden and engineer, Duncan Shaddick of blessed memory, who year after year would raise his hand at budget time and remind the parish that we were making no provision for deferred maintenance. And later, warn that the spire was corroding and needed to be addressed. Finally, the time came to do exactly that, to prevent the whole superstructure of metal and aluminum-cast simulated stone from crashing down on our heads.
Accomplishing its restoration was a huge undertaking, funded by gifts from individuals and groups and foundations and grants from different levels of government. 74 parishioners of this congregation gave an average of more than $7,000 each towards this work. This is a real testimony of love and generosity, respect, and of obedience too, As God’s people said in Exodus, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do”
So, Praise God!
The Epistle and the Gospel and for today both contain sections that are little severe. I will talk about them in a moment, but as I told a friend who called last night, “I want to celebrate a wonderful accomplishment. Not to belabour the cost of discipleship.” To be sure, this accomplishment DID have a real cost, in both human and financial terms. 74 parishioners (or families). The average was $7,412. I know for certain that my gift was well below that average. So I can safely conclude that some of those donations were well above that average. Goosebump good!
And Praise God too for Saint Paul’s most zealous love of Christ.
A Lutheran pastor said in a way I’ll always remember that while the letter to the Romans is full of high thinking and theological challenges—fodder for schism as well as centuries of commentary—the heart of Paul’s message and the meaning of the cross to him is always love.
One thing I love about Paul is that he, coming late (“as one lately born” 1 Corinthians 15:8) to encounter the living, resurrected Christ and thus to the truth of Christ’s sovereignty… persisted in trying to figure out, to work through, and to articulate why Christ had to suffer and die. He spoke of this again and again, and what he wrote has come down to us codified and organized and over-thought (if I might be so bold) and perhaps we might say tainted by a kind of retributive economy that makes God the Parent into a tyrant, the kind of Bad Dad that would try to get Abraham to kill his son Isaac and who would later on refuse to take away the bitter Cup Jesus spoke of in the Garden of Gesthemane. “Happy Father’s Day?” Maybe not. Do note that what I am saying here is NOT the Good News.
The choice that we are offered, after all, is not to die or not die in our bodies. Heavens, my friends, mortality is part of the complete package and it’s not an optional feature, either!
The choice is to embrace life in its deepest sense, the imperishable life which all people (I would say not just Christians) have access. After all, the same Jesus who said I am “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” also said “I have other sheep who are not in this fold”.
And I don’t say this without recognizing that there were centuries when Lutherans and Catholics tortured each other; when Anglicans were burnt for their beliefs. We’ll get to Matthew in a moment.
But first, I want to cap my observation on Paul’s letter to the Romans by saying that this imperishable life to which justification gives access doesn’t just spring from a personal “born again” experience on the road to Damascus. It’s also represented, for Christians, by baptism. In the oldest liturgies, the water in the font is transformed into Christ’s death and resurrection when the Christ Candle which has just been lit earlier on Easter Eve is plunged into it. This is a primitive and visceral demonstration of the passage into the Christ life which has not always been individual… surprise… but which is also identified as being brought into the body of Christ, the church.
It might seem like a jump, from justification to a Christian sacrament. This is germane, because the sacraments – like the communion we will share later on—are not something that we individually DO. (They are not what the reformers would call “works righteousness”). Justification is a state we come to not through our own efforts, but by opening up … or even yielding… to the activity of God in us. To God’s grace.
And we do this collectively, not simply individually. Which Matthew makes abundantly clear.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few, therefor ask the lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Matthew 9:35-38.
Look how everything in the long passage that follows springs from this compassion, from this love: The calling of the disciples by name. Their sending. The healings. Freeing them from a wage economy by setting aside monetary payment. The blessings. The peace that returns to them if their mission is rejected: no smiting or sulking, simply peace.
And yes there are trials.
The cross is always part of it. As Anthony Jemmott preached to us on my first parish retreat, also many years ago, “my sisters this is not cheap grace I am talking about.”
The trials are to be endured. They CAN be endured, because they are not the end of the story, what I called the “complete package”.
Our work here isn’t finished by any means. But the people who donated, and prayed for, and worked for the preservation of Christ Church Cathedral physically, in this place, were not installing a glorious tombstone. They were helping to equip us and future generations to continue the work in this place that is our witness to the Grace of God and the compassion of Jesus and the overflowing life of the holy spirit.
Praise God, from whom All Blessings Flow.
In 2020, the Anglican Communion signed on to an ecumenical agreement about justification originally authored by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. You can read more about it here:https://www.anglicancommunion.org/ecumenism/httpwwwanglicancommunionorgecumenismjddjaspx.aspx
Illustration (cropped from the original): Saint Paul the apostle, majolica tiles; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chiesa_San_Costantino_il_Grande_(San_Costantino_Albanese)06.jpg