Yesterday was the 117th synod of the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. A strange meeting, given that for the first time we could not find a way to meet in person, but with the aid of fibre optic wiring, wireless internet, and much other technology, we did indeed meet. I thought of Archbishop of Machray, who laid the cornerstone of this church and was famous for his efficiency in organizing people, thinking he might well have been delighted by the accomplishment.
As is the custom, the opening liturgy of synod included a lengthy charge from our bishop, Geoff Woodcroft. His opportunity to reflect to the diocese what he has heard and learned over the past few years and give us a sense of where we, as a connected diocesan family, might move in the future. These episcopal charges, in my experience, usually focus on broad themes and present a few ideas about what we might work toward, but the specifics are left for later conversations.
I was pleasantly surprised that Bishop Geoff took up the saint of the day—Bishop Ignatius of Antioch—and charged fully into the ancient saint’s letters and martyrdom. I love the stories of saints and martyrs and the lessons that they teach us, so my ears perked up significantly when the charge began by giving a variation on the gospel for the day’s memorial, adapted for Rupert’s Land today, and a picking up a theme on which Ignatius wrote extensively:
The hour has come for Christ to be glorified and the hour has come for the Church, which is the Body of Christ, to fall as a grain of wheat into the ground where it must die and where, in dying, it will bear much fruit.
Like Ignatius’s own life lived in the service of Christian unity, preaching about the Body of Christ, and ending in a martyrdom in Rome, Bishop Geoff said, the time has come for the Church to embrace its own call, like the grain of wheat, to die and, in dying, bear much good fruit.
Speaking of the death of the Church is an unsettling thing. It is also a topic that comes up with great frequency these days. When newspapers and media personalities speak of the death of the Church, they do so in terms of an institution that they believe is disappearing. Very few of them make the connection between John’s gospel or the belief of Ignatius or us, gathered here today. Death is an important moment of change, but it is not the end. Wheat dies to give life in bread, grapes are crushed to give life in wine, and we, the Church, give of ourselves that others may also have life.
Our bishop was crystal clear that we, as a diocese, as a Church, must reimagine ourselves. Our history as the church for citizens of the Empire is one that we must shift. We are surely still here for all of those who came to settle Canada, but we must also be for those who were here before us and for all of those who have come since and those who will come in the future. In the same way that wheat produces seed as a gift to those who wish to harvest, we are called to offer the fruit of the Spirit, borne in our lives: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23) for all who seek it. Not to store these things up for those who seem to merit them, those who we might prefer to give them to, those who look and sound like us, but to bear these blessings into the world and share them with generosity that scandalizes the world. We are called to give of our own blessings with the same abandon with which water floods the Red River in spring, with which fields burst with grain in autumn, with which blood and water poured from the Cross.
This parish, this community, this family, the Body of Christ in this place is capable of incredible work. We have been here longer than the City of Winnipeg has been incorporated. The witness of architecture and music, of prayer and art, of preaching and catechism, of blessing and healing, of sanctuary and calm, has lived in this place since Portage and Main was a crossing of oxcart paths and a small general store. The steadfastness of this community and its commitment to showing forth the love of God in the centre of this city is a significant testimony and witness.
But along with the capacity to do incredible work comes the need for self-reflection. In today’s reading from Exodus, we hear Moses pleading with God for a glimpse of glory. This is part of a much larger conversation, of course. Israel has broken the tablets on which God’s commandments were inscribed. The covenant between God and God’s chosen people has been damaged and God’s glory is both dangerous and difficult to see. Moses is hoping to see God’s glory that he might share the blessing with the people of Israel, but is also hoping that a good relationship might be restored and the covenant properly renewed.
The story of Exodus and of Israel’s breaking and restoration of covenant with God is an important one for us to remember. So often when we read these portions of scripture, we identify quickly and completely with the “Good Guys”. The people of Israel are, after all, the nation of God’s chosen on to which we are grafted through our life in Christ. We hear of the liberation from slavery and flight across the Red Sea and think “Ah, yes! These are the people to whom we have been added through our adoption in Christ!” Or we sing Mary’s Song at Evening Prayer and we hear that “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty,” (Luke 1.52-53) and we immediately connect with the humble and the hungry. We have been lifted and been filled with good things. Mary sings of us.
The Virgin sings of us, to be sure, but we must remember to examine ourselves against her song in all ways. Sometimes the Church is the humble and the hungry, the persecuted and the enslaved. But sometimes we are also Pharaoh and the army, the mighty who must abandon their thrones and the rich who will be sent away empty. These latter parts, the pieces of our shared life which are concerned most with our wants, our ease, our comfort, these are the parts that must die. As today’s collect says, these are the parts which we are called to leave behind in the past, reaching into the future, beyond ourselves, to share the astonishing blessings which God has heaped upon the community here.
This parish stands poised to speak, in word and action, of God’s truth and justice to this city and to the world. The history, geography, and visibility of this place, its people, and its vision for its work as the Body of Christ are a tree ready to burst forth with blessing, nourishment, healing, and life for the world. Evils of the world stalk through our community as bullying, systemic racism, sexism, greed, ableism, exploitation, homophobia, impoverishment, disenfranchisement, and violence. Many of you have been touched by these. Those you love, you yourself have been told that you are unimportant. That because of the way you look, the way you speak, where you come from, who you love, or some other piece of who you are that you are worth less. These blights grow stronger when we look for ourselves before God. When those with power believe that the value of the emperor’s image on the coin is worth more than the image of God imprinted on the face of their neighbours; imprinted on the face of every one of you.
In these days when the sacraments of baptism and breaking bread together are dangerous, how else might we live them out? In our baptism we die so that we might be reborn in Christ and bear good fruit for the life of the world. In Eucharist we give thanks and partake of the heavenly feast, praying that we will see what we are and become what we eat, nourished and strengthened as the Body of Christ, by the Body of Christ. If we are willing to give of ourselves, to let our own selfishness die and to become uncomfortable, to make ourselves vulnerable, to open ourselves to what is strange and unfamiliar and unknown for the sake of God’s love, we could make the healing, life-giving power of God’s sacraments known to the world. We can lift the humble and fill the hungry with good things. We can be a voice of love and care, a voice speaking of the presence of God in humanity. We can be a sanctuary for this city. We can show the world the glory of God in the Body of Christ, if we are willing.
I pray with all my heart that we are.
This sermon was originally preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg.