The place for the true follower of Christ is in the world, not in the church. The church is a place to return for strength, for consolation, for inspiration … but all in order to equip us for service in the world.
At St. Stephen’s we find many opportunities for such service. Inn From the Cold provides shelter and comfort for those who otherwise would be on the streets. All Roads Lead Home supports people settling into affordable homes of their own. Through our monthly “Pink Envelopes” we support a variety of other outreach programs such as the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, Feed The Hungry, and the Rector’s Discretionary Fund.
But beyond all the outreach opportunities available through the church, there are countless ways to serve the world through our support of international NGO’s (non-government organizations), local charities, cultural groups, and service organizations. In fact, there are so many ways to serve, so many good and worthy causes, we sometimes find ourselves having to consolidate our charitable donations into a few chosen favourites.
The point is, the church may be where we are inspired to give, but it is not the only place to which we give. So follow your heart. What are the causes that speak to you, that engage your interest, that move you to action? Include the church among these, because this is where it all starts. But somewhere out there is a cause with your name on it, awaiting your considered and generous response.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity concludes this weekend. Initiated in 1968, this ecumenical movement gathers Christians for eight days of prayer for mutual respect and cooperation among churches, if not for their actual organic union. In fact, given two thousand years of often fractious division, “Christian unity” is a bit of an oxymoron: a state very much alive as a Christian ideal, but rarely found in practice.
This movement has lost momentum in recent years. This might be due in part to the increase in Christian divisiveness, even to the point of acrimonious schism. The Anglican Communion has been rocked by public rifts between conservative dioceses, primarily on the African Continent, and liberal Western dioceses over the issue of same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, within the Anglican Church of Canada congregations across the country have been turning either to Rome or to one of several evangelical church movements in reaction to recent changes here.
But there is another reason that ecumenism in general has waned. Seekers and believers alike have let go of denominational loyalty. When people choose a church it is likely to be one that meets the specific needs they are looking for, rather than one that wears a particular label. Christian unity is hard to achieve when we approach it from behind rigid lines of belief and practice. But regular folks, voting with their feet, are going wherever they are fed by the Gospel. And this just might be the unifying force we have been praying for!
The church is a funny place. Not just humorous, but also tragic. It seems the more we try to emulate holiness and goodness, the more our baser instincts rise to the surface.
Comedy often draws upon this tension between what we want to be and what we are, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Monty Python and the Vicar of Dibbley. But so too does tragedy. In recent years this theme has come powerfully to both stage and screen, often targeting troubled clergy as a telling symptom for all that’s wrong with the church. In the 1990’s the films Mass Appeal and Priest explored the tragic consequences of religion that hides rather than celebrates our true humanity.
Now, this Friday at St. Stephen’s, Radio Nights presents a dramatic reading of the most recent offering in this genre, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play Doubt: A Parable. This soul-searching drama raises hard questions about religious authority and moral certainty. The 2008 film adaptation won Academy Award nominations for four of its actors, including Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
We are fortunate to have in our midst both the vision and the means to bring such evocative drama to the stage here at St. Stephen’s. Now in its fifth season, Radio Nights is the brainchild of Maureen Jones, voice actor and well-known member of our parish. Her cast of Calgary actors will remind us that religion that masks our humanity with ecclesiastical power and certainty casts a shadow of its own.
In the weeks following Christmas we are all about light. Since the winter solstice the earth has turned southward on its rotational axis and the days have started lengthening. But our worship on the Sundays after Epiphany also basks in the theme of light, divine light.
This theme was first announced at Christmas, where God’s light came into the world through the birth of the Christ Child. Then, on the Feast of the Epiphany, three astrologers from the East, representing seekers from the Gentile world, followed a star which lead them to Bethlehem and to God’s revelation through Christ.
For the early church this was a way of describing their experience of the Good News. A Jewish Messiah, fulfilling Jewish hopes, had been enthusiastically embraced by the Gentile world. The Magi represent this world, following its own light (associated with astrology) to a greater light, the light of God’s Chosen One, which would illuminate people of all tribes and races.
In our own time, we recall that the light we receive through Christ is a light intended not for hiding and keeping for ourselves, but for illuminating the world. It is a light not merely for our own private use, to guide our feet along life’s dark pathway, but a light to share with others. This is not to say our job is to make the whole world Christian, but more to say that our faith has a purpose beyond our own salvation: and that is to benefit the world.