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2nd Sunday after Pentecost 10 June 2012 St John the Evangelist, North Vancouver
Deanery of North Vancouver
I think it was more luck than good management that caused me to escape another Trinity Sunday with the folks here at St John’s. A year ago they had to listen to me on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. For some good reason I didn’t pull that straw this year.
“Those to have ears to hear let them hear, the still small voice of God.”It was an historic occasion that brought four days of holidays to the UK last weekend. There were hours of colour commentary for Canadians, and other members of the Commonwealth, as we watched the pomp and pageantry like only the British still undertake, with the celebration of sixty years of Elizabeth II’s reign as Queen of Canada and her other realms and territories.
Sixty years, no matter how old you are, is a very long time and with no retirement in sight. She is the only monarch most of us have ever known. (And doubt that any of my clerical colleagues were old enough to have been required to take an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen prior to their ordination as I was—part of our historic heritage.) Yet, as many commentators observed, it was a noticeable change and poignant moment when Prince Philip was absent from the Queen’s side as she entered St Paul’s Cathedral for the Service of Thanksgiving. It was a reminder that while we may sing ‘long to reign over us’ the time will come when we will be forced into a transition to a king whose name is Charles and then William. It won’t matter that you’re not a monarchist. It will be a momentous change from what we have known--for a lifetime for many--what has been familiar, comfortable, obvious--to something uncommon, uncertain, and maybe even unrecognizable.
Change always has uncommon, uncertain and unrecognizable characteristics built into it. Isn’t that the point? Change is bringing about something new, something different. And no, it’s not always better. We can, however, make some decisions about what impact that change will have on us and the world we inhabit.
This Sunday we have the second of the fourteen Sundays that we will read from Samuel. Last Sunday we met Samuel as a young boy who was discovering what God had in mind for him.
[1 Samuel 3:1-10] In the space of one night’s fitful sleep he discovers that he can hear the voice of God. He also learns that because of this divine encounter, God has a message for him to prophesy. It’s a message for his mentor, teacher and friend, Eli whose sons, remember have been unfaithful to God. The reading last week concluded with Samuel hearing God calling him for the third time: “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
It’s a bold claim, I think: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Listening to God is a bold thing in its own right. Telling God that you are listening is, in my mind, even bolder.
We know that God is in love with us. And we say we’re in love with God. Well, how many of you have ever said to those who love you and those you profess to love: your parent or your wife or husband or partner or child: ‘Yes, yes, I’m listening! Yes, I heard you!” Anyone else but me?
We’re not always listening when we claim to be—so, perhaps sometimes it’s a bold claim to say to God: ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’ unless we really intend to be doing so. And what are we listening for? The word that God will give us or the word we want to hear?
I am quite sure that Samuel, even as a naïve young man, was not hoping he would get the message that he did and would have to give, that he would have to prophesy to Eli, his beloved teacher. But he was listening.
Today we encounter a far different Samuel. [1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20] Times have changed.
Samuel is now an old man and the last of the judges of Israel. His sons may not be blasphemous and unfaithful to God as Eli’s sons but they are not as attentive to God as Samuel is. And so the elders of Israel come to Samuel. They want a change. They want a king. No more judges. They want a king like everybody else. So, Samuel, having learned from childhood what to do next goes to have a conversation with God. He prays. And what does God say to Samuel? “Listen….Listen to the voice of your people…”. So the tables have turned. Something has changed. Rather than Samuel being told by Eli to listen to God, God now tells Samuel to listen to his people. Samuel is the intermediary, the translator of change between God and God’s people. And God tells Samuel to be very clear with the people as to what they will get. “Listen to their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them…”. They may well want something new, something different, and they will get it—a change is about to occur. It’s a pivotal moment in the story of the people of God—a transition from the former leadership model of a judge who was a guide and interpreter of God’s plan for his people to a monarch. Samuel himself is about to transition from prophet and priest to a bridge figure for what God is about to do – anoint a king, the first king: Saul.
There is in the text a struggle between two traditions where one recounts the former ways and the nostalgic peaceful co-existence with God and the new way where asking for a king suggests disloyalty to God and a rebelliousness. It seems to me that the author or authors of the text were themselves struggling to interpret the changing times. What would the new way be like? What will we have to sacrifice? What new thing will emerge?
Just as Eli told Samuel to answer, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’ God continues to remind Samuel to ‘listen’.
In our own time God is still asking us to listen—listen to the communities where we live, work, go to school, and play; listen to the culture, the economy, the demographics; listen to finances, physical resources; listen to our heart—judge our own response, our own deep desires. What is it that we’re hearing? What is that we’re afraid to hear?
I think you know something of this in the North Vancouver Deanery. You have spent time listening to the community in which you live, where you worship, and encounter God in your midst. There has also been a courageous move to the very edge, the verge of doing a new thing.
But it would seem at this moment there has been retreat—some further back than others. After three years of praying, studying and listening the hardest decision has yet to be made: we’re over-built and with buildings that need more than a makeover. Now what do we do?
In preparation for the diocesan-wide collaborative evaluation the Diocesan Family chose two words: vitality and sustainability to determine the health and vigor of a Parish Church’s engagement with God’s mission and the ministry to carry it forward. Vitality speaks of the clarity with which the community’s understanding and intersection with God’s mission is lived out in ministry both within the church community and in the parish—the surrounding neighbourhood.
Sustainability reflects the physical and financial resources to accomplish the ministry and the capacity to be fully present in mission. The word strategic was added to indicate if and where a particular location would add significance to the conversation. For some it seems to have been understood as the ‘escape clause’. If the Parish Church can be described as strategic the proverbial ‘they’ will leave ‘us’ alone.’ Strategic comes with some expectations. What is the ‘can’t do without it’ mission of the location in relation to those other nearby ministry centres to allow strategic to be the designation? Unless there’s a shared understanding of the whole – a catholic appreciation, in its truest sense - that a certain church should be named strategic the definition can’t be sustained.
In this Deanery some of the most exciting and the most challenging conversations have occurred.
There is the beginning of a clerical colleague group within what is described as the ministry team—and I use the word beginning with intent. The evidence I see is that there is considerable respect and care for one another and it’s a beginning. It’s not that it doesn’t occur in other deaneries but very often there’s a great indifference.If you have have any comments on the sermon or the service, feel free to leave them on this blog.
The conversation around gifts present and gifts needed has caused some creativity to emerge around staffing. With two new members about to join the clerical team this will certainly change the dynamic—and another change—another re-beginning.
Jump-starting community engagement with staff deployed particularly to do so, coordination of the team’s work, integration of laity and clergy in a ministry team; these are all components of building a healthy response to participating in God’s mission in the region.
But there is one hard nut to crack and it was not yet been spoken—what is going to happen with all the buildings? True, when the process was first begun there were seven churches and now there are five. However, one does not have to be a social geographer or urban planner to know that what we have presently is not what we need and I think cooler heads would be willing to say we need two, maybe three, churches to serve the population and mission we’re about. Now, I’ve been in the Anglican Church long enough to know that it’s not just the Presbyterians or Baptists or Lutherans who have a market on stubborn and single-mindedness — we’ve been practicing a long time and we’re pretty darn good at it, too. Forgive me, but the stubbornness seems to be centered around an unwillingness to take shared responsibility for the decision that will be made in the best interests of God’s mission in this Deanery. To be set against one another won’t work. To say ‘we’re alright Jack; don’t worry about us’ betrays a willingness for collaboration and collegiality.
In the gospel today there is a debate between the scholars and lawyers and Jesus own family as to whether or not he’s suffering from a mental illness. [Mark 3:20-35] Jesus was forgiving people, healing them, restoring them to the fullness of life. That was contentious. Only God gets to do that, and if not God then Satan. Jesus counters his accusers, his tempters by reminding them that it would be impossible for Satan to cast out Satan. And he goes on to use a metaphor:
If a kingdom is divided against itself that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.While Jesus used this example to describe why evil could not combat evil without destroying itself, and therefore why his ministry was from God, it also stands to reason that if our church is to be strong in this region of the Diocese, it cannot be set against itself either, or the strength will be depleted.
Times are changing. We cannot stop the change. We can be a part of the change and adapt accordingly. We have clear evidence of what is happening in our churches. Declining attendance and reduced financial capacity due to many and complex reasons. All the more reason for us to be collegial in our ministry and collaborative in our facilities as well as our response to God’s mission. The longer we defer a decision the less opportunity we will have to make a decision at all — it will be made for us—and not by ‘them’ but by the rapidly changing society around us.
Change. Samuel, urged by God, listened to the people. Samuel thought that the people were abandoning God by asking for a king. But the people pressed on and Samuel realized that king or no king God was still in charge. So Samuel finally says to the people “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” [1 Samuel 11:14-15] As we know Samuel would be around for not only Saul’s ascendancy to the throne, but David’s also. And through this change, through the renewal of the monarchy of Israel, Israel would become a nation. Rabbi Edwin Freidman, a well-known proponent of family systems theory, taught that a good leader was one who was self-differentiated, non-anxious and able to take stands at the risk of displeasing others—not for the sake of stirring up trouble but because the outcome would be a better one for all. Samuel certainly exercised that kind of leadership with God’s guidance. The foremost example is Jesus – the most effective and self-differentiated leader who in today’s gospel lesson, despite the scholars, his mother, and his family, Jesus is able to maintain his focus on doing God’s will by healing and forgiving and by bring God’s mission to the fore.
Change. It is ours to manage or we will be managed by it. And God has promised the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to guide us into all truth. We must be collaborators with God in mission so that the focus can be on healing and forgiveness, bringing our communities to new life, to the fullness of life and not simply sustaining them through to the last whimper and gasp.
My friends, we are being offered an opportunity in this time to do something very meaningful and very powerful that will upset the homeostatic malaise and allow us to be, through the Holy Spirit, leaders and, as cliché as it sounds--agents of change. As St Paul has told the Corinthians, ‘we do not lose heart’ for by grace there is so much more to the fullness of life. [2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1]
In the collect for the day we acknowledge God’s assurance to us of life abundant for all eternity and we prayed: “Deliver us from the death of sin and raise us to new life in [Jesus Christ]” [Book of Alternative Services, p 360]. We betray ourselves if we fail to acknowledge that the new life we seek is compromised by our own unwillingness to live into it, and therefore, causing it to die.
So, be courageous. Don’t give over to hand wringing. There’s life to live and there is ministry to do. God’s mission does not wait. Together, make a decision for the good of the whole. There’s a world around you waiting--waiting to be brought to a fuller knowledge of the life abundant in Jesus the Christ.
Those to have ears to hear, let them hear, the still small voice of God.
Preached at St John the Evangelist, North Vancouver on the occasion of the annual service of Eucharist of the Deanery of the North Vancouver. 10 June 2012.