The purpose of Christian community

Pentecost 16

Isaiah 50.4-9a; Ps 34.1-8; James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

I am so delighted to see so many of you here in the cathedral, as well as online, as we join together in this ‘Back to the Cathedral’ Sunday.

There has been a real sense of the end of the summer season in the past week, youngsters are back at school or university, adults back at work – either figuring out how to reengage with in person work or still cursing the number of online meetings starting to fill in the diary.  The weather is still holding up, though the nights are getting cooler. And leaves are just on the point of changing colour – another festival of the beauty of creation to behold in the coming weeks, together with the abundance of the autumnal harvest in full view in our grocery stores, before we settle into the approaching of winter.

Back to Cathedral Sunday has of course a dual meaning this year.  The first is the one we have been used to for many season pasts, this annual return to the post-holiday order of things after the opportunities that the summer offers us to rest, do other things, see other people, and visit other church communities.

But this year, it may also be a more significant marker of the tentative way of returning to a new normality, one for which we have been yearning after 18 months of pandemic and of wider disrupted patterns of community.

For us at Christ Church Cathedral, this is specifically embodied today with the return of our choir – who have not sung for in-person services since March 2020.  And so our hearts are glad at the arrival of our new assistant organist Nick and organ scholar Owen, and at the commissioning of Nicholas Capozzoli as our Director of Music.

Choral and organ music is at the heart of the Anglican tradition, allowing us to connect with our joy and sorrows and touching our souls in ways that words alone often simply can’t.  It is one of the sources of divine inspiration and the return to live choral music is a significant marker of hope in the life of our community..

Another of course is our building itself, which teaches us in signs and symbols the key tenets of our faith, as well as telling of the development of the Anglican community in Montreal.  It is of course our spiritual home, the place in which we have chosen to gather and from which we are sent in mission, locally around us and further away, wherever we may be.  It is here that we meet friends and strangers, and knit the ties of community which bind us together in common worship and common experience.

Heritage buildings such as ours are important and across the Province of Quebec this weekend, the Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days, are highlighting our importance in telling our own story in stones.  Tours and trails have been developed to help visitors engage with our history and learn about our faith and community, and to catch a glimpse of our engagement and witness in the world here in downtown Montreal.

In this season set aside to think about God’s creation, and as national leaders prepare to meet for the COP26 UN climate change conference meeting in Glasgow to review environmental goals in light of the accelerating climate crisis, you may want to look at some of the displays prepared by our Ecological Social Justice Action Group in the baptistry after the service.

The set of biblical passages given for us today have a strong educational theme – or at least warn us about the awesome responsibilities and perils of teaching.

I’ll hazard a guess that, as you look back and remember your own educational journeys, your memory may immediately bring forth those teachers who have had the greatest impact on you.  I certainly can think of two people – one, a math teacher in secondary school who was able to convey the excitement for her subject and describe the elegance of a solution to fearsome equations which made learning compelling. The other, an art teacher, who with a throwaway comment, was able to stunt my confidence in drawing and painting, a comment which still resonates in my head to this day whenever I take a pencil or a paint brush.

There is no doubt that good and bad words do have power that last a lot longer than it takes for saying them.  We all know of the affirming effect of the right word at the right time as well as of the devastating effect of the wrong word at the wrong time. The ability to use one’s tongue wisely and effectively is crucial if we will do no harm, as noted both by the prophet Isaiah and the writer of the letter of James.

However, I am not entirely sure that I agree with the opening line of the passage from James today, and it is good that it is tempered by Isaiah’s exhortation.

Teaching does take many forms, and is not simply the remit of the few.  All of us teach all the time, in our words and actions – even if formal magisterial teaching might be reserved to a few.  Within the Christian community, when we all seek to support one another on our faith journey, we are all in turns teachers and learners, listening to one another, sharing insights and understanding, grappling with the meaning of biblical text in light of our own faith, knowledge and life experience.  And the ways we meet people for the first time and behave around others teach people something of our Christian faith.

One of the pitfalls we have to occasionally face is the knowledge that, in being human, we occasionally fall short, and our tongue goes beyond our intention, using words that hurt when we should be using words that affirm and heal.  Each and every one of us are, after all, work in progress.  But intentionality is everything – and the prophet Isaiah invites us to stick to our divine calling, even in the face of opposition, while James in his letter cautions us to use our power of speech to honour God always.

In my travels throughout Quebec this summer, I was drawn to visit a number of exhibitions telling of the life of the early religious communities that contributed so much to the life of this Province.

In Rimouski, I saw a small exhibition telling the story of the congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Rosary who had a significant impact on education in the Bas-St Laurent.  And in Quebec, I visited the Museum of the Ursulines which showed their work educating young women to make them the best they could be, and the Musée des Augustines which displayed that community’s dedication to health and wholeness through the development of hospitals as well as the promotion of healthier living.

These are particular examples of Christian living in community, with specific commitments, demands and sacrifices bearing rich fruits for society and the Kingdom.  Now, as these sisterhoods are decreasing, their work lives on in the structures they are leaving behind, the impact they have had on society, and in the lives of the many women and men they have educated.

The purpose of our Cathedral community is similar.  We are to help people, all of us, to come to faith, grow our relationship with God in our cycle of worship and praise.  We are then to live our faith out in the world in ways that transform our daily lives and the lives of those around us, whether in healthcare or education, hospitality or research banking or in retail, whether we are students or retired.

As we tentatively come together again in person this autumn – and maintain some of the useful practices that we have learnt in lockdown too – we give thanks for the broad range of interests gathered within our community.  From worship to adult education, from service to the poor and marginalised in our last Sunday of the Month lunch to campaigning on a range of issues with our ESJAG group, from music to visual arts.  We do much – sometimes too much – to sustain us and feed us, as well as to witness to the world that our faith is alive and active and life giving – affirming of all that is good and of God in the world, and -where we can – challenging what runs counter to the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom where all creatures including ourselves are loved and valued, and able to share equally in the bounty of God’s world.

We continue to see much darkness around us – from the environmental crisis to the failure of political systems we took for granted, from the cynicism of the social media barons to the horrors of those fleeing failed regimes.

And yet, even the greatest beauty and greatest tragedies find some common denominator.

At the beginning of this service, the beautiful poem by the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins reminded us that underlying the whole of creation, there is a rhythm, a cadence, a heartbeat, a word.  That word is Love. Divine love, that which sustains all life.  Love, the name of God.

We were reminded of this in the commemorations of the events of 9/11 at the weekend and the stories of the countless sacrifices made for the sake of others during that dread-ful day which redefined our era.

This is the word that also underlies the Mission and Witness of this cathedral. Love – of God, of one another, of all our siblings around us, of the whole created order.

Today, as we mark the beginning of a new cycle here at Christ Church, we give thanks for the faith that has inspired our forebears and encouraged them in their work of education, development and witness here on St Catherine St.  We give thanks for the love at the heart of our Cathedral community and the ways in which this love is expressed and lived out.

And we pray that in the coming year we may like them be so inspired to continue to seek to grow in that love and share it widely – that as we take up our crosses, signs of sacrifice but also signs of redemption – we may continue to joyfully be witnesses and advocates for the Kingdom of God in our generation today.


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