Published on 25 Nov 2013
The Reign of Christ – November 24, 2013
The Rev. Canon Herbert O’Driscoll
Christ Church Cathedral
Click here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon
When Peter invited me to be today’s homilist, this very special Sunday beginning the 125th year of the Cathedral’s life and ministry, I assumed he invited me because, as I am the oldest living Dean – (I cannot believe I just said this) – he felt that I was therefore closest to that long ago year 1888 when the foundations of this place were laid at the top of this hill above Burrard Inlet.
So, if that was indeed Peter’s thought, let me play my role as ancient sage and tell you a story of that time. Incidentally, in his fascinating history of the Cathedral written in our Centennial year 1989, Neale Adams mentions this in his book LIVING STONES.
Once upon a time when this hill was just a hilltop above the harbour there was a church to the east of downtown – still very much there and vibrantly alive – called St James. In St James there were some people who were quite unhappy. As it is today so it was then. Anglicans always manage to assemble a bundle of things about which they proceed to disagree vehemently. Back then in those last decades of the 19th century it was about how to worship God. Some said – with as much beauty as possible, Others said – as simply as possible. The former were called High Church and the latter were called Low church.
Now in St James the unhappy folk were Low Church, indeed so Low Church were they that they decided to up-stakes and build their own church. And so it came to pass that Christ Church rose on this hill above the harbour. As a matter of fact you will find this difficult to believe today but for some years it was the highest building around.
It is in the nature of groups that break away that they always seem to find more things to argue about. For instance, what would you put on the altar in the new Christ Church? Even to use the word “altar” was a bone of contention. Some preferred to call it a table, a holy table. After all St James used that word “altar”. Then there was the question of what should be placed on it as a focus for all eyes. Certainly not candles because St James did that. And certainly not a large brass cross because again St James did that.
So at the end of the day a decision was made. A large shiny brass alms dish was purchased and placed in the middle of the altar. And after all this, what do you think those wicked High Church folk back at St James began to do? For a number of years they got the greatest pleasure in referring to the new Christ Church as THE CHURCH OF SAINT ALMSDISH.!
So that is my item of news from 1888. Now lets for a few minutes stand firmly in the year of our Lord 2013.
In the study in our house there is a photograph. In it stand four figures. One of them is known to everyone here because it is Peter our Dean. The other three you might know according to your vintage. One is Michael Ingham who left as Dean to become our Bishop, the next is Jim Cruickshank and the next is yours truly. Actually, as with many group photos, there is someone who should be in that line had he been alive. His name is Northcott Burke and he was Dean from the late fifties to 1968.
The reason I tell you of this photograph is that it is the image of something that has made a huge difference in the life and ministry of this congregation. Those five ministries stretch from the late fifties of the last century to today. But the most significant thing about those five ministries is that they all steered this Cathedral on a path that continued and amplified the previous ministry. There was never any turning back. Each of those ministries was aware of the cultural context in which the Cathedral stood. Each responded to those cultural tides and each charted a course that opened the Cathedral and opened the hearts and the minds of its people to the world of that particular time. Each stage of the Cathedral’s life remained open to possibility, open to journeying, open to risk, open to creativity, open..
I have always felt that whoever among you formed the statement “Open Doors,Open Hearts,Open Minds” captured the quality of this long sequence of ministry perfectly. A great part of the pleasure I have in being here on this day is, as it were, to step out of that photograph and, on behalf of us all, to say thank you to the other four Deans, again including Northcott Burke.
Let me at this point share some lines with you I have often used with clergy at preaching conferences, reminding them that the church is not in the business of dispensing religious information, and it is not in the business of offering glib certainties about the mysterious business of being a human being on a lifelong spiritual journey. The poet is Alex Noble . The title of the poem is “The Doors”. I quote these lines because they are linked in my mind with this place and the generations of this congregation.
You asked me what I would like to have
More than I would like to have knowledge,
More than I would like to have certainty,
I would like to have a door, opening
Into a wide field, filled with the songs
Of small birds, filled with light, filled
With dancing and with gladness;
And far across the field, another door,
Opening into Summer, into wilderness,
A greening of imaginations;
And finally, at a great distance,
Another door, opening, opening,
Such a ministry down through more than half a century of extraordinarily intense cultural change has not always been easy.
One reason is given in that first scripture Brian read a few minutes ago. That long ago people of God have been through massive disruption and disintegration. Torn away by an invading army into exile, they have managed to crawl back to a devasted Jerusalem that must now be rebuilt. They have managed to lay the foundations of a new place of worship. Listen to the deep emotion being felt by that long ago gathering. Trumpets have just sounded. There has been a loud hymn. Then comes the release of emotion…
All the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many old people who had seen the first house on its foundations wept with a loud voice when they saw this new house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping…
I thought of that long ago episode when I read a recent conversation between Joan Chitister and Richard Rohr at a conference in Chicago. At a certain point Joan Chitister, a deeply spiritual and insightful Benedictine voice, said this.
“Every single institution is in flux, churches, economic systems, cities, government. Hence you have that sort of ferment simmering everywhere, and there are people that simply are looking for a cave. Its too much to take psychologically. So we are in a period of phenomenal stress and counter stress. You are looking for the synthesis of two voices both in church and in society. The past, present and future are all in these voices. The fear of losing the tradition is a genuine fear and ought to be honoured. The fear of losing the tradition by failing to develop it is also a fear that must be honoured. Out of this must come a synthesis, but it won’t come if people abandon the questions…”
It seems to me that that conversation echoes the sound of the two kinds of voices that wept and laughed that long ago day in Israel. Those voices have been heard down through all periods of great transition. The two voices are loud today, some mourning an irretrievable past, others trying to be the midwives of a beckoning future. In this Cathedral we are worshipping in a place where that synthesis has been sought over many decades.
There is another cultural tension that seeks resolution in today’s church. In the second scripture read by Donelda we heard Saint Paul speak of it in the context of the very early days of the church. It’s the tension between, on the one hand, the corporate life of the institution and on the other hand the richness and immense variety of the individual’s personal spiritual journey and the expressed needs of that journey. Many congregations today find a resolution of this tension extremely difficult.
Especially in recent years you as a congregation have worked your way towards such a resolution. In the beauty and discipline of your worship, in the rich spectrum of your music life, in the spectrum of your preaching styles, in the sophistication of your programming. In all these ways you have sought a balance between the corporate life of the church and the individual’s spiritual journey. So much so that I happen to think that you have a special vocation, given the struggles of so much of today’s church to respond to contemporary spiritual longing. I think the things you have discovered and formed and share in the last couple off decades – the insights, the methods, all that rich creativity needs to be made known beyond yourselves. Somebody needs to write – or to communicate in some way – this rather wonderful story.
A final thought, and it comes in the short Gospel passage we heard. Its that mysterious moment when our Lord withdraws his visible presence from the disciples. We call it his Ascension. He gathers them on a hill, he blesses them, then he calls them to live what they have seen in him and learned from him, to live it and to share it with others.
But there is one all-important word in this passage. It might surprise you when I tell you what it is. It’s the word “eleven”. Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. Do you see what I mean? There should be twelve. Jesus called twelve. His vision was of this circle that had many meanings in the long tradition of his people. But the circle is damaged, wounded, broken. The dream has hardly begun and it is already diminished, the community incomplete. And yet, and yet – and this is what is all-important for us – in spite of this our Lord entrusts the future task to them. Human as they are, incomplete as they are, imperfect as they are, he calls them to be his hands and his feet and his eyes and his voice in the world of their time. And so he does with us, who are, as we know all too well, incomplete, imperfect, wounded, human.
Some weeks ago a few of us here were on Iona, that lovely tiny island that has been a holy place for at least fifteen hundred years of Christian faith and, before that, for millennia of Druidic spirituality and worship. Many of us know how George MacLeod gave Iona new life in the last century and how today there is a living community of young people from many countries. The day in 1938 when the restored Abbey on Iona was rededicated, MacLeod said this prayer.
It is not just the interior of these walls;
It is our own inner beings you have renewed.
We are your temple not made with hands
We are your body.
If every wall should crumble
And every church decay,
We are your habitation.
Nearer are you than breathing,
Closer than hands and feet.
Ours are the eyes with which you, in a mystery,
Look out in compassion on the world.
So we bless you for this place,
for your directing of us,
your redeeming of us, and your indwelling.
Take us outside the camp Lord,
where nations clash at the crossroads of the world.
So shall this building continue to be justified?
So – as that prayer was once said for an ancient and lovely place, let it be our prayer today for this place, that one day, far in the future, it too may be thought ancient and lovely.
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