TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
When something seems too good to be true, sometimes that’s exactly what it is—too good to be true. Such has been the case with our appeal to the senior bishop of our ecclesiastical province for Shared Episcopal Ministry. The appeal was intended to provide us with a bishop who would be willing to oversee our offering of same-sex blessings here at St. Stephen’s even while our own diocesan bishop has denied us that right.
Initially we were delighted by Bishop Phillip’s response, which not only accepted our appeal but also offered himself as the bishop with whom we could work … and all with the agreement of our bishop and archbishop Greg Kerr-Wilson. But it turns out that Bishop Phillip’s letter to us constituted a major miscommunication wherein what he said and what he intended were quite different things.
What he said was that he was contacting us to “to begin the process”, while also agreeing “to serve as the SEM bishop for St. Stephen’s”, to which our bishop had already agreed. What he meant was that, while he would not support us doing anything against the will of our bishop, he would willingly “walk with us” in our quest to do same-sex blessings … someday.
So your rector and wardens regret having to correct the impression they shared with you about our being granted a way forward on this issue. However, they believe that the SEM protocol still has relevance and significance, along with other options being considered.
CHRISTMAS: IN WORD AND SONG
This afternoon we gather to hear—in word and in song—a story that has changed the world: the birth of a baby to a young couple who are caught up in dark events that rise up on every side, dwarfing them. Their world had all the upheaval of an earthquake, yet we follow them through their precarious journey—that leads not only to safety, but indeed, to the salvation of the world.
Of course, the Christmas story is a relatively modern invention of our imaginations. It does not exist in the Bible as a single narrative. Rather it picks up narrative strands scattered across four hundred years of religious writing and orders those strands into the story we know today.
But it is the story we need to hear: the humble birth of the one who will prove to be our saviour; the victory of light over darkness; the promise of God’s powerful presence even in our most vulnerable and frightening moments.
It is a story of the heart, not of the head—for the details only serve to confuse us. It is best told, not with a preacher’s fury, but with a storyteller’s grace. And it is best heard accompanied by the sacred music that the story itself has inspired through the ages.
So this year we present once again a Festival of Lessons and Carols, narrated by voice actor Maureen Jones with music presented by music director Jeff Jones. Come and hear the message of the angels.
“SEE HOW THEY LOVE EACH OTHER !”
Today we convene a Special General Meeting to decide if we will appeal for a unique provision of the House of Bishops called Shared Episcopal Ministry. If we agree, and our appeal is granted, this would mean that we would receive the ministry of a bishop in favour of same-sex blessings who would provide guidance and oversight for this one specific ministry.
But what we decide today is perhaps less important than the spirit in which we decide it. Facing the brutality of his own crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that they ought to love one another, because in this way people would know they were his disciples. And in the early church this is how people saw Christians: third century Church Father Tertullian reported that people said, “See how they love each other.”
What Jesus had in mind was not likely that Christians ought to love one another exclusively, and nobody else; rather, that loving one another is the way we learn how to love everybody else! So how we manage conflict within the church becomes crucially important.
Some members of St. Stephen’s have been concerned that this proposed action may lead us into an undignified battle with our archbishop. They are right to be concerned. So it is important that our disagreement about same-sex blessings not become a personal battle between him and ourselves. We seek justice, but we do so with Christian love and respect. May it be said of us, “See how they love each other!”
WELCOMING “ANGELS UNAWARES”
With so much attention these days on the plight of Syrian refugees, it is natural for us as Christians to search our own history and beliefs for wisdom about how to respond.
As we approach the Christmas season we recall that in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus—one from the gospel of Matthew, one from Luke—Jesus’ own family were, in one instance, “displaced persons” uprooted for the sake of a national census and, in the other, refugees sent by God to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod. In other words, in order to underline their vulnerability and their complete reliance upon God, they were pictured as being without a home of their own.
In the teaching of Jesus we hear again and again of God’s special care for the poor and the marginalized, sometimes called his “preferential option” for the poor. If the stories of his birth bear any resemblance to historical fact, it would be understandable that Jesus was at pains to ensure that his followers would always measure their love for God by the actual care they showed for the poor and dispossessed.
In the early teachings of the church we hear echoes of the Hebrew scriptures where peoples and nations are judged not by their piety but by their treatment of the weakest in their midst—including the sojourner. Perhaps the most alluring teaching comes from the letter to the Hebrews: in showing hospitality to strangers some have actually “welcomed angels unawares”.
EXTENDING A HELPING HAND
This month’s Pink Envelope is designated for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF). This is an outreach arm of our national office that divides its funds between “relief”—immediate response to both natural and human-caused disasters throughout the world—and “development”—efforts to support sustainable communities in developing countries.
The Primate’s World Relief Fund was established in 1958 in response to the Springhill mining disaster where 75 miners lost their lives and people across the country wanted a way to respond to their stricken families. In 1969 “Development” was added to its mandate to help establish long-term support for communities most vulnerable to disaster around the world. Currently PWRDF is soliciting funds for Syrian refugee relief, the Canadian government matching its donations through to the end of 2015.
PWRDF operates entirely on the direct freewill offerings of individuals and churches across the country. The fund receives no financial support from our national church, and none of the apportionment payments our parish pays to our diocese are rerouted there. So our donations through our Pink Envelope program or directly, either online or through regular ongoing subscriptions, provide PWRDF with all its funding. To learn more, or to donate directly, please visit their website at www.pwrdf.org.
This is also an opportunity to inform you that, starting in the New Year, Pink Envelopes will be available to all church members, whether or not they give by way of envelopes. This is a vital part of our outreach ministry at St. Stephen’s.
This week we take our next steps toward offering same-sex blessings at St. Stephen’s. Recognizing the impasse we have reached with our archbishop on this issue, we are calling a Special General Meeting of the congregation to decide whether to apply for Shared Episcopal Ministry, an arrangement that would provide us with another bishop to oversee this one aspect of our parish life.
Shared Episcopal Ministry was conceived by the House of Bishops back in … as a means of breaking a deadlock between the bishop and several parishes of the Diocese of New Westminster (being Vancouver and the Lower Mainland). In that instance, the diocese had voted to authorize same-sex blessings. But some congregations were threatening to leave the diocese over the issue. So provision was made to invite a like-minded bishop to provide spiritual oversight for those congregations choosing not to offer same-sex blessings.
Our situation in Calgary, of course, is the reverse. Despite almost half the Anglican dioceses across the country authorising same-sex blessings, and despite the persistent pleas of three congregations in our diocese, our bishop is refusing to permit such blessings here. So we need to decide if we wish to exercise our right to ask for a different bishop to provide oversight in this one aspect of our ministry.
Please plan to attend one of our information sessions on Sunday, December 6, to learn more; and then to attend and participate in our Special General Meeting on Sunday, December 13, following the 10:30 service.
THE PRESENT MOMENT
Where is the time going? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were barbecuing in the back yard and trying to gear up for the fall season? Well, now fall’s just about gone! And suddenly we’re talking Christmas … with snow on the ground!
St. Stephen’s is a busy place these days, so we’re sorry if we’re contributing to the sense of the rapid passage of time. Next week we host the event on death and dying called “What Really Happens When We Die: Is the Paranormal Normal?” Coincidentally it falls on the last weekend of the Christian calendar—the Reign of Christ—which is about the end of time.
Then, the next week, we begin a new church year with the season of Advent, looking forward to the coming of Christ into our midst—both at Christmas and at the close of the age. It seems, irretrievably, we are always lurching forward to the next thing.
So here’s an idea. Stop. Take a deep breath. Stand still. Take note of your surroundings. How is your body? Where are your emotions? What thoughts keep breaking through? What is happening in the stillness of this present moment … where it is not actually necessary to DO anything?
Regardless of the lightning-speed passage of time, God is with us fully and manifestly right here, right now, within us and around us, as we are held in the palm of God’s hand. Even in the midst of all our busyness: God is with us.
A FISH…OR A ROD?
Give a man a fish, the saying goes, you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he feeds himself for a lifetime. Both day-to-day solutions and long-term strategies are required to end the cycle of poverty.
Here at St. Stephen’s we know several of the day-to-day solutions quite well. Since 1997 we have provided safe refuge for the homeless through Inn From the Cold. Twice a month volunteers provide food, accommodation, and a warm welcome to the guests who find their way here. Once a year we participate in the Feed the Hungry Dinner program of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. We join a volunteer force of 100 people to serve a full Sunday meal to up to 500 people.
Along with the many other citywide programs to alleviate the effects of poverty, these are important initiatives. But they don’t tackle the larger problem of poverty itself. Why do so many remain homeless in our city, and what can we do to solve that problem at its source?
In 2008 the Calgary Homeless Foundation took on the task of coordinating Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness, focusing on the principle of “housing first” (i.e. get a person housed, then they can address the root causes of their homelessness). In the years since its implementation the Plan has provided housing for over 6000 individuals and seen a 15% reduction in homelessness overall.
So we all have a part to play—giving a man a fish, or a rod.
“REACHING FARTHER:GIVING SMARTER”
An important shift has occurred in our day-to-day outreach at St. Stephen’s. In the past we responded as best we could to anyone who came to the door looking for help: a food voucher here, a book of bus tickets there. We tried to deal fairly and respectfully with those in need, but our response always felt inadequate.
Now, through a new relationship with the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS), we have found a more appropriate niche within the larger network of social agencies in the city. When people in need present themselves at our door we now refer them to CUPS. There, a proper assessment is done by professionals who are plugged in to a citywide database and who have at their fingertips resources for both food and housing.
But their mandate is very specific and often CUPS is unable to respond to needs that fall outside that mandate. For instance, a bus ticket home to attend a funeral is out of reach for people living in poverty. A security deposit can be too great a hurdle for the working poor to secure an apartment. And sometimes a person just needs to sit and talk.
So CUPS now refers to us those whose needs we are in a better position to meet. We help fewer people this way, but our assistance in each case has become more substantial and far more effective. To support this local outreach, please give generously to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund, this month’s Pink Envelope.
“SLOW DOWN (YOU MOVE TOO FAST)”
Contemplation is not a word most of us use on a regular basis. When we do we might say we need to contemplate an idea or a situation, meaning we need to think about it deeply, mulling it over in our minds before we act.
For some spiritual seekers, contemplation is a way of life—observing the details of daily life deeply and thoughtfully. It is a stance of perceiving without reacting, appreciating without judging. This is not always easy in a face-paced world where things happen fast, requiring quick decisions and sudden actions.
Contemplation slows life down to create “space” around every action, around every moment, so that its essence emerges, lessening our urge to react and inspiring our awe and wonder in the world God has made. It follows the dictum, “Less is more.”
This week we begin a monthly Sunday evening gathering we are calling a Wisdom Gathering. Through music and ritual we will create “space” to contemplate an aspect of the spiritual life.
Tonight (October 25th) at 7:30 we will consider rituals that help individuals and their families face death. Our special guest will be Sarah Kerr, a “death midwife and celebrant” whose work with the dying will also be featured at our upcoming event, “What Really Happens When We Die”.
If it sometimes seems that life is going by too fast, that we need to slow down so we don’t miss it, then contemplation may be just the antidote. And tonight may be the start.