Sermon preached by the Revd Neil Fernyhough, 3rd Sunday After Epiphany (January 24, 2010).

Readings:  Nehemiah 8: 1-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21

This is my last Sunday with you as your interim priest-in-charge, and it has been an amazing twenty-seven months.  I have learned and grown so much being with you!  When I came to St. Hilda’s in October of 2007, I found a parish raw and hurting over the circumstances surrounding your rector’s departure.  And I found a parish in the midst of a visioning process – trying to figure out what your collective mission and identity might be for the future.

Now, as I leave St. Hilda’s, I see a parish that has healed, and is stronger than – well, when has it really been stronger?  I see a community that is confident to step forward into any ministry to which God calls it, secure in itself, and confident in its character.  And what a remarkable rector you will have in my friend Clarence – as kind, caring, and visionary a priest as any congregation could hope for.  And what a remarkable people he will find in you – for the transformation has happened because you have allowed God to work through you.  Transformation requires us to willingly surrender ourselves to God.  It’s like any difficult and painful procedure – the more you fight it, the longer it takes, and the more it hurts.

Let me tell you the story of my transformation.  The abbreviated version.  Back when I was a young undergraduate, I had no idea what it was I wanted to do with my life.  I knew I wanted to be a revolutionary of sorts who could change the world through protest and political action.  My personal hero was the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army – and in my room, I had a photograph of him taped over my desk.  Underneath I had inscribed my favourite quote from him:  “It is necessary, not to laugh or to cry, but to understand.”  This was the maxim by which I wanted to live my life.  In the 1980s, as I saw around me the chaos of a world gone mad – from the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War, to proxy guerrilla battles in Central America, to the rise of Islamic militancy, to the union-busting of Reagan and Thatcher, to over-logging, acid rain and the ozone hole – I felt that the greatest deficiency in the human race was one of understanding.  And the greatest obstacle to understanding was passion.

I was young and ignorant.  But I have found that God will take the raw material of whatever spark of wisdom is there, and mould it into a garment of love that you can slip on and wear forever, if you choose.  That’s transformation.  God has taught me that it is necessary to laugh, and to cry, and to understand.  If you do not allow your passion to guide your reason, then you soon become victim to St. Paul’s warning that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

I’m still learning this lesson.  As we heard from the Old Testament this morning, Ezra reads the Torah to the Israelites, newly returned from exile in Babylon.  Unable to freely practice their religion there, they now find themselves back in Jerusalem, their plundered and defiled capital and spiritual centre.  In a touching scene, as Ezra reads, Levites move around the crowd interpreting for the people – as we heard, “they gave the sense, so that the people understood.”  That is one of the more frightening, awesome, and humbling callings of a priest – to help the people understand – and many times I have often felt, to use Jesus’ image, the metaphorical millstone tightening around my neck, lest I lead the people of God astray.

But my experience here has helped me claim my voice.  I feel much more fearless about giving the sense, so as to help us all understand what we hear Sunday by Sunday.  It’s still an awesome and humbling responsibility – but it is much less frightening because this community so honours the individual spiritual journeys of the people who enter these door  By that, I don’t mean that “anything goes,” but that we appreciate we have the potential to teach and learn from one another about the word here (the Bible); the Word there (the sacrament); and the Word which dwells so fully and richly in each of you.  In that way, we grow into full maturity in Christ, as spiritual beings.  And as spiritually mature women and men, the courage we find in the life and love of God-with-us enables us to be spiritual revolutionaries in a world trapped in violence.  Sometimes it is a very quiet, desperate violence, but violence is all around us, nonetheless.

What I didn’t count on when I taped Leon Trotsky to my wall was that he would one day be replaced in my pantheon of heroes by an even greater and more successful revolutionary, Jesus of Nazareth.  The new world the Bolsheviks attempted to usher in with the weapons of war had already been established, unbeknownst to me, by this most unlikely of figures.  For what can you say about a man, a travelling preacher and wonder-worker, who returns to his hometown; reads a portion from Isaiah, and sits down, allowing a very pregnant pause before he proclaims that the prophecy of liberation has now been fulfilled.  Remember, Christianity didn’t exist yet.  Liberation, as far as anybody was concerned – even from a rhetorical standpoint – had not been fulfilled.  People dwelt in the hard labour camp of Roman imperialism, tethered to rapacious landlords, malnourished or worse, subject to a social system in which independence of thought and action was so impossible, it never occurred to anyone that it might actually exist.

Most people still don’t believe that they’re free, because in so many cases they are still kept in chains.  Whether it’s the chains of a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship or the chains of consumerism or the chains of mindless social conformity; the only difference is how sharply they dig into your flesh.  It seems odd, this ubiquity of chains, considering that one-third of the world calls itself Christian – but the hard power of guns and money has never been Jesus’ strong suit, which is what makes him such a peculiar revolutionary.

As I say, almost one-third of human beings call themselves Christian, and it is a spiritual path that is – almost uniquely – what its believers want it to be.  As I have said to some of my friends who identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” if you leave religions to fundamentalist extremists, don’t be surprised if you get fundamentalist extremism.  But you can, if you choose, allow the religion, and its revolutionary leader, to transform you.

Treading this spiritual path has transformed me, and you have been a significant part of that.  I see our shared identity as Christians as being a sort of universal tribe of sages, prophets, servers, helpers, and warriors – and sometimes we exchange the hats quite freely.  We are a tribe pledged to our God who has no one name, but is called equally Yahweh, Christ, Sophia – the Lord, the Son of Man, the Spirit of Truth.  Our pledge is a partnership for creation, redemption, and salvation – good news that is shared in the living of it, for as the tribe of God, we know well that human beings create their own reality and have the power to build heaven or hell on earth.

When I was in Canterbury in 2008, I visited the oldest parish church in England – established some 1400 years ago.  It was built on the site of a Roman temple, which was itself built on the site of a pagan holy place.  But nothing has been built on top of it.  Indeed, just down the road stands Canterbury Cathedral, the fruit of the first Christian mission to England.  Christianity transformed a nation, it transformed a continent, it transformed the world.  And it continues to do so.  You, me, and some two billion others are a transforming army of spiritual energy for the cause of love and life.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you today.  God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  This scripture has been fulfilled, and will be fulfilled – it is necessary only for us to be transformed into believing it and doing it.  It is necessary for us to laugh, to cry, to understand, and to fight the battle to which we are called, as revolutionaries of the Spirit.  Amen.

© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2010

Sermon preached by the Revd Neil Fernyhough, 2nd Sunday After Epiphany (January 17, 2010).

Readings:  Isaiah 62: 1-5; Psalm 36: 5-10; 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11

This is not the sermon I originally prepared for this Sunday.  Rather, this past week was one of those thankfully rare ones when I wrote a second sermon, having been dissatisfied with the first.  I had laboured over what I smugly thought was an expert exegetical unpacking of the symbolic and theological themes of the story of the miracle at Cana.  I wrote about the significance of changing water into wine for John’s understanding of the nature of Jesus, and the difficulty in discerning divine signs in the everyday miracles of creation.

And so I printed it out, and I went for a swim, and came up here for our church committee meeting, back home, relaxed a little, then took the printed product to bed with me to read over one last time during the ads on the television news.  And as I went back and forth, between reading my sermon, and watching the images from Haiti, I began to feel more and more of a disconnect between my inspirational lecture on what Bible geeks call the Logos Christology of John; and the scenes of horror being transmitted into my warm, comfortable, very middle-class North American bedroom as I lay between my 400-count cotton sheets.  And I thought:  Really, if a stranger came up to ask me why I followed the spiritual path I do, given what I see in the world around me today, what could I say?

The Miracle at Cana does provide some spiritual sustenance to those of us who have been reflecting on the tragedy which is now thought to have claimed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 150,000 lives, and has created untold misery and hardship for the survivors.  Jesus turning water into wine is a miracle about abundance.  In light of the events in Haiti, which have left people with barely enough of the basics to survive – food, water, shelter, medical attention – abundance sounds a theme that must seem to us strangely off key.  I can hear many of my sceptical friends asking me, as I’m sure they will at some point, “where was a divine miracle when the people of Haiti needed it?”  “Why is God allowing such a terrible disaster to happen?”

The Miracle at Cana doesn’t answer those questions – which basically boil down to asking why God made things the way they are.  The mystery of suffering is a journey that every human being must enter into at some point in their lives, and it would be presumptuous to offer a one-size-fits-all explanation for any singular experience.  And it feels even more presumptuous – if that is possible – for me to offer up pious bromides about the abundance of life’s beauty and joy, as I stand in one of the most prosperous and comfortable corners of the globe, faced with such unimaginable suffering, unfolding in the midst of the most dire poverty.

Therefore, when I say that the story of a miracle of abundance provides spiritual sustenance, I don’t mean that the cup of our Haitian sisters and brothers floweth over.  Far from it.  But I want us to consider for a moment what the wine in this story represents.  This little story is all very deceptively bland and pleasant, after all.  The scene is a wedding.  A dilemma has arisen, in that the wine has run out.  Pressed by his mother, Jesus is persuaded to perform a miracle – his first.  Significantly, the miracle is not something truly astounding and earth-shattering, like raising the dead – or even curing an incurable illness.  The sign Jesus offers is to simply turn water into wine.  But this just isn’t any water – it is seven hundred litres of water set aside for the rites of purification.

As Christians, we don’t need to ponder long and hard on the symbolic meaning of wine.  We get it.  In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he asks, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”  Yes, indeed, it is.  And the message of the Miracle at Cana is the abundance of that sign of Jesus’ passion – the unending rivers of his suffering with and for a humanity in tears.  Those enormous jars, filled with the choicest vintage, are in fact emblematic of the path on which Jesus is about to embark.  It is a path that we, at some point, decided to join – perhaps not fully aware of the profoundness of what we were being asked to do until it was too late, and God had us firmly in hand.  And then, like a child’s first time on a bicycle, we learn there was nothing to fear, after all – and we have found a new vehicle to freedom.

Miracles are signs.  They are signs of the nearness of God – a God who is capable of even turning the laws and regularities of nature upside down.  And as we consider the suffering in Haiti and respond – as I hope you are – we need to discern the sign that God is giving us at this time.  For, after all, in every circumstance is buried a divine beckoning.  Sometimes people get the sign spectacularly wrong.  For instance, the television evangelist Pat Robertson reprehensibly claimed last week that the Haitian people were being forsaken by an angry God in retribution for allegedly having made a pact with the devil 200 years ago when, as slaves, they successfully overthrew their French owners.  I don’t even know how people can perceive God acting like that and still call themselves a Christian!  No, the sign here – and indeed the challenge issued by God – is simply one of compassion in the face of suffering humanity.  And isn’t compassion, freely offered to strangers at personal cost, with no expectation of reciprocation, very much a miracle?

The wine of Cana is the blood of Christ poured out for the world, unremitting, yet sweet; replacing the waters of purification with the substance of redemption.  It is easy sometimes to forget that extremes of poverty, violence, want, and despair are an everyday reality for hundreds of millions of men, women, and children.  We forget that there are people who would walk miles and beg for what we throw out of our refrigerators or allow to pour down the drain from our faucets – never mind the accoutrements of our relatively comfortable lives.  The tragedy of Haiti reminds us again of that other kind of abundance – material abundance – that most of us, through an accident of birth, enjoy in North America.

I’m not trying to instil guilt, which I consider to be among the most unproductive and psychologically damaging of human emotions.  But I do hope to inspire some reflection on the value of true abundance in Christ’s love.  All that we have and all that we are will one day pass away – we all know this – but the electrical current of God’s love will continue to power human relationships within the complex web of creation, with all its joy, all its banality, and all its tragedy.

In the epistle reading we heard this morning, St. Paul tells his listeners:  “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” and after listing several, he concludes, “All these gifts are activated by one and the same Spirit.”  What a miracle!  Abundance upon abundance upon abundance!  Through the spiritual gifts we have been given – indeed that everyone, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, have been given – we have been offered the potential to nourish a faith in which we can be quietly confident in the reality of God, assured of God’s care and compassion in the daily, hard, incremental work of transformation.  Transformation from desolation and forsakenness into God’s beloved.  A water-into-wine experience, indeed.  Amen.

© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2010

Sermon preached by the Revd Neil Fernyhough, Feast of the Epiphany (obs) (January 3, 2010).

Readings:  Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

One of the many things that I will miss about Sechelt is the clear night sky.  When I first moved here, I found myself going out for walks at night, just to look up at the stars.  Having lived in Richmond, I got used to seeing nothing at night but low-flying planes and red lights twinkling on the top of cranes.  And of course, Vancouver and Berkeley weren’t much better.  I have to go all the way back to the time in the early 1990s, when I lived on a six acre patch of land in Sooke, BC to think of a time when I could last enjoy the night sky like this.  I loved to head out after dinner on warm evenings, lie on the grass, and gaze heavenward.

I experience a lot of feelings when I look up at the night sky – perhaps you experience the same ones.  Insignificance is the first sensation – the acute awareness that I am but one small frail being, on a small blue orb spinning on the tail of a vast galaxy, swirling amidst at least one hundred billion other galaxies.  As I lay in the yard outside my cabin in Sooke, with the silhouettes of broom and blackberry surrounding me, all I could see were but a few of the four hundred billion stars of the Milky Way that are visible from our little patch of the planet Earth.

It is perhaps as inevitable as it is telling that the feeling of insignificance at this point immediately gives way to stark awe.  And awe has a way of transforming my sense of insignificance into one of profound significance.  It is at once, strangely, both humbling and empowering to suddenly know that I really am a part of all that I see, and all that I don’t see – all things visible and invisible, to quote the prayer-book.

I’m sure the religious impulse must have first emerged from experiences such as these – our ancestors trying to understand themselves in the presence of the complexity, vastness, and sheer grandeur of creation.  On the one hand, it is true that all the life on our little blue planet will be destroyed by a dying Sun in a couple of billion years; that is, if we humans don’t get around to it first.  On the other hand, it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is the gift of love that assures us, in the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, that we don’t die into heaven, but are born into it.  What matters is that gift of love, bestowed by divine grace, and manifested as existence itself.  What matters is the persistence of existence which overflows even the boundaries of the universe, the entirety of space and time.  For has not God revealed that existence – life – continues beyond space and time?

The magi were star-gazers, as well.  Incidentally, a colleague and I were discussing the magi the other day, and I mentioned to him that we don’t know either how many there were, or their names.  “Sure we do!” he said, “Jim, Johnnie, and Jack.”  “What?” I said, taken aback.  “Yeah,” he said, “Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniels – mix ‘em together, knock it back, and I guarantee you’ll definitely see at least one bright star shining in the east”  If I’d wanted to be my usual pedantic self, I would have reminded him that the idea that there were three is traditional – the Bible doesn’t actually say.  What it does tell us is that they came from the east, and that they are usually believed to have been Gentile astrologer-priests or shamans.  Their symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are literally gifts fit for a king – the poem we heard from Isaiah makes that clear.  But the gifts are also prophetic – gold representing Jesus’ status as messiah or king; frankincense, for his high priestly role; and myrrh as the oil with which one is anointed for burial.

Indeed, a moment’s reflection will tell us that the whole story is symbolic and metaphorical, representing the revelation of God to the nations – hence the sign in the sky, the journey to pay homage, the gifts recognising Jesus’ status.  This recognition is magnified through highlighting the fear shown by Herod.  He obviously would have had the resources to locate the newborn, located just 10 kilometres away in the small village of Bethlehem.  But, again, the story is meant to draw our attention to the challenge Jesus’ claim of kingship makes to the earthly authorities.

And what is that claim?  What is it that the reader’s literary stand-ins, those three magi, go to see?  Why do they risk trekking over desert wastes – or, as it were, field and fountain; moor and mountain – following yonder star through hostile territory, bearing precious gifts?  And, having recognised who this peasant baby is and what he represents, why do they risk imprisonment or death by neglecting to meet with Herod before they return to their homeland?

It’s simple.  They were star-gazers.  They “observed his star at its rising,” they tell Herod.  For some, the Feast of the Epiphany is merely the end of Christmas, and a time to take down the Christmas decorations.  But what Epiphany actually commemorates is acknowledgement.  Without his contemporaries having acknowledged that he was the personification of God, the historical person called Yeshua ben-Yosef, would have been an otherwise insignificant and ultimately forgotten rabbi and wonder-worker.  This peasant baby of first century Jewish Palestine – just one of the one hundred billion odd humans who have ever lived.  For we are, after all, much like stars in the sky.

Epiphany is an acknowledgement of the significance of this particular human being.  It is an acknowledgement that we have to see God-with-us for God to, indeed, be with us.  It is an acknowledgement that the fullness of divinity came to rest on this child, filling him with wisdom and power – the wisdom and power that can only be produced by love.  And that love was perfected in Jesus, who saw that love is the material – the stuff – which makes existence possible.  And existence, as I said a few moments ago, is unrestrained by the limits of the universe.  It defeats time.  It defeats matter.  It therefore defeats death; and of course, it makes short work of evil.

And, finally, Epiphany is – by extension – an acknowledgement of our own significance, as well.  For in the realm of love, there is no such thing as insignificance.  It is itself made insignificant.  As St. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, through the manifestation of God in Jesus, the plan of God is fulfilled, and “the wisdom of God in its rich variety…[is] made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”  In Christ, Paul continues, “we have access to God in boldness.”  And when we have access to God, we have access to love – in boldness, and with “confidence through faith in him.”

As we embark on this season after Epiphany, let us remember that it is not simply a fallow time before Lent.  It is for us, as it was for the magi, a season of acknowledgement.  It is a season of recalibrating our faith, of  rediscovering the ministries and mission to which we have been called, as significant participants in the divine journey.  It is, in short, a fitting time as our parish moves from a time of transition to an exciting new chapter with a new rector.  And so, let us rediscover the mystery of love we are invited to kindle in the world as Christian women and men, signed with the cross.  Let us rediscover why it is we roll out of bed on Sunday morning, and make our way to this place.  When we do that, we are following a star, and so let us bring our gifts to the one who is Love.  Amen.

© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2010

Sermon preached by The Revd Neil Fernyhough, Christmas Eve (December 24, 2009).

Readings:  Isaiah 62: 6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: 1-20

I sometimes wish I was a little more festive.  I’m not one of those people who has a brightly lit Christmas tree, with a little toy train circling around its base, baubles hanging from the ceiling, and holly boughs adorning doorways and rafters.  My decorating consists of Christmas cards on the mantle, and that’s it.  I did buy a poinsettia last year – and having this bedraggled, sad, nondescript plant hang on and on has taught me not to make that mistake again!  I don’t know what I’m missing – literally.  Christmas has been boiled down and refined to the bare bones of its religious significance, and I feel like the poor child from the TV Christmas special, looking forlornly through the shop window at the magical display, while I shiver in my rags outside.

But that’s the way I am.  And I make no apologies.  I like being on the outside looking in – I hope it gives me a clearer view of what’s going on.  That there are two festivals called Christmas – one secular, one sacred – has become such a commonplace idea that it has reached the status of a cliché.  And so I feel trapped in an uncomfortable place, wishing that I could unselfconsciously embrace the baubles and bows, along with Santa and the elves; but at the same time not wanting to get on the marketing train that has sapped Christmas of its significance, beyond the tepid fond sentiments of a Hallmark card:  Season’s greetings, peace on earth, happy holidays.  Christmas has so much more to offer than that, and I want to invite you to join me as we struggle out from beneath the mound of tinsel to walk in the light.

Festive or not, Christians love their holidays – or feast days, as we call them.  There are thirty-six in the calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada, seven of which are called Principal Feasts.  Four of these commemorate significant events in the life of Jesus – Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Ascension Day.  This isn’t surprising, since we’ve built our faith tradition around the central figure of our founder and original teacher, a first century Jewish rabbi, preacher, and wonder-worker from the region of Galilee in what was then the Roman province of Judaea.  As a commemoration of the birth of a religious founder, Christmas stands alongside similar festivals in Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, and the Baha’i Faith.  These occasions provide an opportunity to celebrate the faith tradition itself, in which the founding figure or event is invested with all that is believed and affirmed.  In this sense, Christmas is analogous to a secular festival like Canada Day, with layers of meaning arising from a combination of myth, hope, affirmation, and solemn purpose.

First, myth.  Myths are legends designed to reveal a deeper truth, and Christmas has a very profound one, which we saw re-enacted in the Christmas pageant.  Through the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, we are transported to a place where the divine meets the human; and the two fold into each other as easily as egg whites into batter.  This is the incarnation – the coming of God into the world in the ordinary, yet extraordinary event of a human birth.  One of the words used to describe Jesus is “Emmanuel,” Hebrew for “God is with us.”  This sense that God has, to quote the Gospel of John, “pitched his tent among us” is vital to our identity and how we view God.  And it is heightened by the humble circumstances surrounding the birth.  For a people living on the margins, the image of God born in a barn to a peasant family – who then must become refugees in another country to avoid being killed by a government militia – says something about God’s identity and what God sees as the defining human experience.

And that brings us to hope.  We believe that the birth of Jesus is not the beginning, but rather forms a pivot in the story of our relationship with God.  This story begins with creation itself, in which the Word of God brings all things into being, filling them with a spirit that endows them with the grace of divinity itself.  This potential, which Christians call sanctification – meaning to make something holy – transforms our vision of relationship; relationship with God, with creation, and with one another.  The revelation of God in the birth of Jesus – the Word made flesh – reveals the essential truth of any relationship.  That truth is that we have a choice between life and love on the one hand, and despair and alienation on the other.  A model for right living is laid out in Jesus’ life and teaching.  The potential to create a world governed by the principle of right relationship is made possible through the personal transformation Jesus’ resurrection opens to us.

And what does this transformation affirm?  Hallelujah!  That is what we affirm – a simple acclamation of praise for the incalculable gifts we have been given that are far more valuable than anything found under a tree.  For we all know that a price tag does not bestow value on anything, but value is bestowed by the heart – and, by heart, I mean the spirit which dwells within each of us.  The gift to love, to embrace, to uplift, to reconcile, to create and interpret and paint with vibrant colours the blandness and darkness that permeates so many lives.  This is what it means to value.  In doing so, we do not so much raise ourselves up to God as bring God down here among us, where he belongs – so that we may see Jesus in the faces of all people, and hold our actions and those of others, including our governments, to the standard of behaving as Christ to Christ.  These are the sort of encounters modelled in the incarnation of God in Jesus, revealing that the secret of existence is that heaven lurks behind earth, waiting to be revealed as earth’s true nature.

And so we come to solemn purpose.  Christianity is a spiritual movement for change, beginning with the self and radiating outward to your neighbours, the community, the nation, and the world – transcending time and space, customs and habits, tribes and peoples.  Christmas is a joyful time, because it pricks our dulled senses, reminding us of just what can be possible if we choose to practice the power we have – the power to love.  Humans have the power to do almost anything we can imagine.  It is the imagination which is lacking.  We could begin fixing climate change, poverty, and militarism tomorrow…if we had the imagination to do so.  Let us be instructed by Mother Teresa, who said, “I found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”  Imagine.

And it all begins with the story of the birth, of the Word made flesh, of the light that shines in the darkness that cannot be overcome by the darkness.  It begins with this Galilean rabbi, who preached and taught, who worked miracles, who overcame the power of evil and death to proclaim by word and deed the simple message that God is love; and so that our highest calling is to love with foolish extravagance.  And so let us do that, not counting the cost, but appraising the value; not ignorant of that which alienates us from one another, but confident that everyone and everything can be transformed to reveal the image of God lying just below the surface.  As you leave to celebrate this great feast day, may you be transformed, and empowered to transform the world so that, in the words of the Hallelujah chorus, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.”  A festive Christmas to you all, and a transformational New Year!  Amen.

© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2009

Sermon preached by the Revd Neil Fernyhough, 4th Sunday of Advent (December 20, 2009).

Readings:  Micah 5: 2-5; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-55.

One of the nicest times I had preparing for Christmas was the year I was unemployed.  Not having much money to spend, I decided that instead of buying presents for close family and friends, I would give them homemade goodies, instead.  And so I prepared rum balls and mini loaves and shortbread and chocolates and pferfferneuse and jam and other things, boxed them up, and – not without some trepidation – presented them to my loved ones.  Any worry I might have had about not having bought them CDs, books, clothing, and the rest of the raft of the usual Christmas present suspects was soon put to rest by the depth of gratitude expressed.  The people to whom I gave the gifts told me how grateful they were for all the time, effort, and care I put into my baking and cooking.

Truth be told, I found all that baking and cooking a lot less stressful than my usual Christmas shopping.  I’m one of those people who is guided by the philosophy of trying to get it all done at once, as quickly as possible, preferably on a weekday afternoon when there will be a minimum of shoppers.  I adhere strictly to a list, and even anticipate a geographical route: “I’ll start at point A, and work my way westward until I get to point B.  Once upon a time, I even had a dollar figure next to each name, to ensure a rigorous fairness in spending no more nor less on niece or nephew, godchild A or godchild B.  I could then, if necessary, produce the receipts, and say: “You see, Uncle Neil doesn’t love him more than he loves you!”  Is it any wonder that the shopping for presents alone was enough to bestow upon me a singularly jaundiced view of the holiday?

Change is in the air, I think.  This year, my close friends and I agreed that we’d make charitable donations in one another’s names instead of giving each other presents; and I think I might do that and the homemade presents with my family next year – and limit the gift purchases to the kidlets, who’d probably cut my jugular if the Christmas present train suddenly stopped!

“Don’t we have enough stuff?” I keep asking myself.  And indeed, in a society in which personal desires are increasingly kept afloat on the buoyancy of debt at the expense of social and environmental sustainability, the ethical question of our time is surely “how much is enough?”

With that great sacred-slash-secular festival of Christmas steaming towards us later this week, with its twin messiahs of Santa Claus and, well, the Messiah – it is a question as timely as it is inconvenient.  But that event, seen in the context of the chief reading of this day, almost demands that the question be asked.  That chief reading is the Annunciation and the Magnificat.  In my opinion, the Annunciation is the pitch, and the Magnificat is Babe Ruth hitting it out of the park.  This song of Mary is one of the most famous passages of the New Testament; and is perhaps the one most frequently transcribed into music, with the obvious exception of the Lord’s Prayer.

Why is the Magnificat such a big deal?  Well, there’s a reason why it’s the last Gospel we hear before Christmas; and it’s not just because it announces Jesus’ imminent birth.  The Magnificat does nothing less than set the whole scene for the incarnation of God.  Using the evocativeness of poetry, it describes, in striking – and dare I say enthusiastic – language the nature of what God intends by coming into the world.  And let us once again savour the enormity of that, our claim – that God came into the world manifest as a human being, in order to impart a message about what is required of human beings to attain a state of godliness, which he called the “kingdom of heaven.”

And so what does the Magnificat tell us about God’s intentions?  It tells us that the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is, first and foremost, of ethical significance.  I can recall an epiphany I had as a seminarian, so profound that I burst into a friend’s apartment across the hall – the inimitable Eric, of whom I’ve spoken in the past – and exclaimed, “Eric!  Ethics!  That’s what it’s all about!”  “That’s what what’s all about?” Eric asked.  I looked at him wide-eyed.  “Why, Christianity, of course!  It’s all about ethics.”  And that was the genesis of my fateful decision to pursue an academic career in ministry.

Of course, like a lot of epiphanies, this one was just a little too sweeping and neatly tied up to be true.  But I have remained convinced that ethics – which essentially imparts a right way of living – is the cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching.  And the Magnificat is the introduction to Christian ethics.  As we listen to its words, we discover why it is as much a sharp commentary on the character of our society, as it was of Jesus’.  With the coming of the Messiah, Mary says, the proud and powerful are scattered and toppled, the lowly are raised up and the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent away with nothing.  As I said last week, when the valleys are raised and the mountains and hills brought low, your opinion on that circumstance depends very much on your starting elevation.

The great social reversals of Luke’s gospel remind us that issues around social status form the prominent element of Jesus’ ethical teaching – which will perhaps come as a surprise to those who thought it was sex!  Of course, Jesus would had no knowledge of sociology, a discipline only about a hundred years old.  But he did know social status, because it was such a prominent feature of his world – far more stark than the ones we see today.  Jesus also knew that it is so integral to ways of being, that we do not only see it expressed across time and cultures, but we see it expressed in other mammals, where status is determined by the size of one’s harem, or one’s antlers.  But social hierarchy becomes a feature of Jesus’ critique because it creates divisions from God, from creation, and from others.  The prevailing medium of social exchange becomes material, and the primary motives affecting relationships become desire and envy – all to bolster a false belief that one can stave off the total loss of everything which is the fate of all creatures.

When I was in Vancouver a few weeks ago, I walked by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the official merchandiser of the 2010 Olympic Games.  It is impossible not to notice that the outside of the building is festooned with banners hanging from the roof down to the awnings, with photos of athletes.  Next to one is printed the words:  “This is what we were made for.”  From a Christian perspective, that’s an interesting assertion, inviting the question, “What is it, exactly, that we were made for?”  Shopping?  Buying into a corporate enterprise peddling an athletic myth?  Buying into a nationalistic enterprise peddling a corporate myth?

Ethics emerges from the intersection of evolutionary impulse with social responsibility. As Christians, we believe that ethical imperatives are as much a reality as anything in the physical realm: we live in a universe that is as moral as it is material.  Jesus understood this, guided as he was by his mother’s song.  He knew that hierarchical social systems maintained through inequity stand opposed to a moral universe in which all are equal in the eyes of God.  And so Jesus proposes an alternative – one of  kinship, in which people treat one another as though everyone were part of the same family, due the necessities for survival we would extend to family.  We are meant to perceive that this is the way God sees humanity, and Mary sets us up for this understanding going forth into Christmas.

And so let us approach that festival of the Incarnation of God with joy, fully embracing that through Jesus, we have the tools to change the rules.  Individually, as a parish, and as a Church, may we find ways to be bold and articulate in speaking and living this ethical imperative of equality, of self-emptying, and of taking no more than a sufficiency.  In that way, we can turn the world upside down.  Amen.

© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2009

Sermon preached by the Revd Neil Fernyhough, Third Sunday of Advent (December 13, 2009).

Readings:  Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 7-18.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  This opening line, among the most famous in English literature, begins A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.  His novel, set amidst the events of the French Revolution, portrays the brutality of the stark social divisions of eighteenth century France and Britain.  In this sense, it is a cautionary tale for Dickens’ British readers, for whom the events across the Dover Strait and their terrifying aftermath was very much a living memory.

In Dickens’ book, we see the oppression of the poor by the noble classes in the years leading up to the storming of the Bastille.  In one chilling scene, a French marquis explains to his nephew that “repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery… will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof shuts out the sky.”  It is indeed an evil disposition, but just as evil is the terrible, bloody, and often indiscriminate retribution that follows the overthrow of the ancien régime.  This culminates, in Dickens’ work, with the condemnation to the guillotine of that same virtuous nephew, whose only crime is that he has inherited his uncle’s title along with the collective family guilt for the cruel and violent acts against the peasantry committed by that family.

The condemnation to death of this virtuous man indicates that what one reaps is not necessarily what one has sown, but can often be what has been sown unwittingly on one’s behalf.  We see this all the time – whether it’s on the individual level, say a family condemned to a generation of poverty and dysfunction because of the dissolute living of its breadwinner; or on a global level, such as the aftermath of revolutions, or the challenges we face today as a result of two centuries of extreme human-generated environmental stress.

A Tale of Two Cities, and particularly its famous opening line, came unbidden to mind as I read those jarring words of John the Baptist extracted from the much longer account of his ministry and proclamation.  First of all, why exactly are the words jarring?  Well, look at what John says.  Calling his audience, “a brood of vipers,” he warns that the axe of God’s wrath lies poised at the root of their very lives.  Trees that do not bear good fruit will be hacked down and thrown into the fire.  In other words, people who do not act justly will be condemned to hell.  When his anxious listeners ask what they should do to be spared this gruesome fate, John replies that they must redistribute their goods, and behave as law-abiding citizens.

John concludes with the urgent message that the Messiah of God is about to be manifested.  He will be the metaphorical axe – or, employing another vivid image, a farmer with a winnowing fork, who will gather the wheat into the granary of heaven and throw the chaff into the flames of eternal fire.  And, after this moral and rhetorical punch in the gut, how does the passage conclude?  “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  Good news?!  Did I miss it?  What good news?  Perhaps the good news that forewarned is forearmed?  Because otherwise, on a casual first reading, John’s proclamation seems to be long on terror and short on “comfort, comfort ye, my people.”

But, if you reflect on it a moment, it is easy to see how the coming of the Messiah could be considered the best of times and the worst of times.  Like any shaking of the foundations, much depends upon one’s proximity to those foundations.  You might find that your world topples.  Or you might find that you have been shaken free from a crumbling edifice.  Or you may simply find that your mental and spiritual furniture has been unexpectedly rearranged.  Regardless, no earth-shattering event leaves one untouched – whether eager or unwilling, we all become participants.  How much more so when that event rips into time, and space; into history and thought; into your personality and character; into the very fate of our mortal and immortal existences, as does the coming of the Son of Man?

And yet it does.  As I have watched the nations gather in Copenhagen to once again discuss a global response to climate change, which they’ve been doing for over twenty years, I have wondered what the coming of the Messiah would mean to those negotiations.  And I have wondered what it would mean to so many challenges and crises the people of the world face at this moment – whether it is the growing divide between the rich and the poor here and abroad, the increasing use of forced displacement, sexual violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers in the intractable wars of Africa, or the restrictions on free speech and a free press in so many places around the world, including Canada.  For the metaphorical mountains and hills to be brought low, and valleys to be raised, there might be a good deal of fearful and joyful anticipation to go around, in equal measure…depending on whether one is a mountain, or whether one is a valley.

Our faith teaches us that we live in a moral universe.  This is the inevitable consequence of seeing things through spiritual eyes – which is our cross to bear.  Paula Sampson, who joined us last Wednesday for our Advent series, The Moral Roundtable, shared with us a quote from Jose Zarete that has stuck with me.  Zarete said that “a spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics.”  Nothing could be truer.  It is possible to distance ourselves from the inequities, prejudices, oppression, and – yes – evil done in your name and in my name.  But, when the King of Glory comes, what will our response be?  The harsh prophecies of John the Baptist sound more to my ears like the plaintive cries of one frustrated and anxious that justice delayed is justice denied.  And only the appearance of the author of the moral universe will quench the fires of hell that humanity stokes for itself.

In this sense, John’s proclamation is transformed into an invitation.  We are invited into a new life, one in which we are trees bearing the fruits of justice and righteousness and mercy; or are nourishing wheat gathered into the granary of God’s kingdom of abundance for the feeding of the nations.  For if you accept that we live in a moral universe, then you must accept that you live with the possibility – the inevitability – of choice.  This is the freedom that Christ’s shaking of the foundations has ultimately made possible – this is the possibility of redemption that is the theme of this time of preparation.  It is for this reason that John’s proclamation lies so comfortably beside Paul’s exhortation:  “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice.”

For those of you who have read A Tale of Two Cities, you will know that the story ends with a redemption, of sorts.  The virtuous nobleman is saved by an act of moral choice manifested as purely Christian heroism.  A dissolute young lawyer seeking some sort of salvation through personal sacrifice, substitutes himself for the condemned nobleman, and ends up with his own head on the chopping block.  The final words of Dickens’ novel are almost as famous as the first.  As the blade is cut loose, the lawyer’s final thought is this:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”  What choices are you being asked to make today?  To what heroism is God calling you today?  How hard do you want to shake those foundations…today?  Amen.

© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2009.

Sermon preached by the Revd Neil Fernyhough, First Sunday of Advent (November 29, 2009).

Readings:  Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the film 2012.  The unforgettable image of California literally sliding into the Pacific Ocean like a toy city off a tabletop – which, for all I know, may be what they filmed – came unbidden to mind as I read Jesus’ words.  These are, after all, the first two sentences of the first Gospel reading of this Advent 2009.  A literal disaster – not a figurative disaster, but a literal one – is about to befall the whole earth, one in which the whole cosmos is touched.

Those of you who have had the dubious pleasure of watching 2012 (which, by the way, is so laughably bad it’s good) will know that it all ends quite badly for the planet.  It’s a disaster movie, so I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that virtually everything and everyone is annihilated in a denouement that is not unlike the flood parable of Genesis.  And probably not un-coincidentally, either, since Hollywood has been recycling story-lines since antediluvian times.  They likely also know that a certain proportion of their audience will be made up Millennialists, Christian and otherwise, indulging in the guilty pleasure of seeing a fictionalized account of a deeply held expectation.

Millennialism is the belief that there will be a one thousand year period in which the heavens and the earth will pass away and Satan will be chained, after which he will do battle with God as a final and necessary prelude to the Last Judgement and a new, golden age.  It’s all right there, in the Book of Revelation.  It was a popular view in the early church, but by the fourth century it was rejected, mainly because it is so at odds with everything else the New Testament has to say about Jesus.  Wasn’t it just last week, after all, that we celebrated the Feast of the Reign of Christ?  The doctrine of Christ’s ascension to govern at the right hand of the Father would seem to trump the frequently suspect theology of the Apocalypse pretty soundly.  And it was chiefly for that reason the Fourth Century crafters of the Nicene Creed inserted the line that, having ascended, Christ’s “kingdom shall have no end.”

If we think about the end of time at all from the standpoint of faith, and if someone were to press us on the point, I think most of us would instinctively respond with the perfectly orthodox belief that the so-called millennial age is now – the age of the Church.  Everything we read in the Bible, proclaim from the pulpit, and experience in the sacrament of the altar, points to the reality that we exist at an in-between time, an in-between state, one in which the kingdom of God is already – but not yet.  This is a time of preparation.  And we prepare by paying attention to the Biblical blueprint of what a God-filled reality looks like; whether it be from the visions of the prophets and sages, the hopes of the matriarchs and patriarchs, the poems of the Psalms and the canticles, and above all in the teaching and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and of his apostles.  We don’t prepare the kingdom by sitting back and enjoying self-satisfied fantasies about a cataclysmic battle between personifications of Good and Evil, followed by the descent from the sky of a perfectly dimensioned, gilded, and bejewelled ideal City of God.

The doctrine of passivity – yes, even of active destruction – preached by certain fundamentalist biblical idolaters is really the true Antichrist.  The idea of global cooperation, of peace between peoples, tribes, and – heaven forefend – faiths smacks a little too much like the Devil’s peace coalition to such types.  For them, “the dream of total victory cannot abide the nightmare scenario of negotiation,” to quote the theologian Catherine Keller.  The state can, and does, rain down omnipotent fire on whomever it chooses; and the handmaids of annihilation wish to have the final say over the handmaid of the Lord – whose child’s birth as the Prince of Peace we now prepare to commemorate.

Traditionally, it has been those at the margins who have most welcomed the idea of the apocalypse.  But beware of what happens once the elites appropriate the narrative of the end times.  When political edginess becomes political expediency, it is those very ones on the margins who will feel the all-too-real wrath of the almighty – with a small “a.”  When judgement day approacheth, how convenient a device its spectre can be made into, in order to instil fear and docility in a population that might otherwise pose a risk of exercising righteous power.  It’s easy to forget that it is precisely the powerful who are condemned and overthrown in the Book of Revelation, just as they are in every single Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the letters of Paul, in the prophets, and – oh, I don’t know – just about everywhere else in the Word of God.

In short, Advent is not about preparing for the end of days, any more than Christianity itself is.  It is about preparing for a new day – a day that is always dawning, a day that even now shines with hope for all those who would dare take the risk to step out into it.  It is simple to focus on the first two sentences of today’s Gospel and suddenly acquire that curious tone deafness of fear; the convenient fear of which I spoke.  But consider the real nugget – the gold coin embedded in the narrative meringue:  “Stand up and raise your heads,” says Jesus, “because your redemption is drawing near.”  The dark time he describes was a reality in which his hearers lived every day – their land under occupation, labouring under three levels of onerous taxation, their very lives under threat from the four horsemen of the very real Apocalypse that was daily life for the bulk of people in first century Jewish Palestine.  Their end times were upon them, and before them stood their redemption – and all of a sudden, their fig tree sprouts green shoots, and summer is upon them.

In the not-too-distant past, Advent was a penitential time for Christians; a sort of a Lent-in-miniature.  And so, the liturgical colour, like that of Lent, was purple – and the prayers, readings, music, and worship all spoke of a bondage that could only be released by the coming of the Lord.  I don’t want to discount that as an important element of the Advent message.  But I am concerned above all today with the things that obscure.  And so let nothing obscure our vision from what we already have.  Advent is a polite fiction in which we pretend that we’re waiting for Jesus.  In this sense, it is an exercise in collective imagination, as we ponder what it was like before liberation was made real in God’s incarnation.  And, in a similar sense, we reflect on what it is like for those who still feel themselves to be untouched by that liberation.

Apocalyptic thinking moves beyond the pretence of waiting for Jesus to actually believing he’s absent – which is why I find it so profoundly sad and unfaithful.  In a world in which Jesus reigns, we still prepare a realm in which the kingdoms of the earth are truly made into the kingdom of God.  This is the function of the Church, and passivity has no role in such an awesome responsibility, and in such awesome accountability.  My prayer for you as we begin this Advent season is that you will indeed stand up and raise your head, prepared to receive the redemption that is already yours.  Let this time be one in which you boldly proclaim in word and deed, Emmanuel…God is with us.  Amen.

© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2009.


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