Sermon at the Commissioning of Lay Evangelists at All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton – January 14th 2018

Tonight our Lord Jesus Christ has given a wonderful gift to his church. He has given us the gift of Alison Hurlburt, Corinna Kubos, and Jenny Stuart to be sent out as evangelists, to spread the good news and to help make new disciples for Jesus. These are the three lay evangelists we are commissioning tonight. But I want to say right from the start that there are more people involved than just these three. Sandra Arbeau has been with us through the whole process of formation; she has recently been ordained as a deacon so will not be licensed as a ‘lay’ evangelist, but she is very much a part of our community of evangelists in this diocese. Also in that community – and here tonight with us – are Richard King and Steve London who have been with us as participants, teachers and learners together with the others.

So these evangelists are the wonderful gift God is giving to his church tonight. I’m using this language of ‘gift’ intentionally, and I use it knowing very well that not everyone would see an evangelist as a gift! Some people see evangelists as a nuisance, or an embarrassment, or a theological anachronism. Some people would see them as fitting in more easily in a Pentecostal or Evangelical setting, and wonder why we’re doing this tonight in an Anglican cathedral!

But we’re here tonight because we don’t see it that way. We’re here because we’re enormously grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for giving us the gift of these evangelists. We’re here to receive that gift with joy and celebrate it together, and to pray for them, and to ask God to bless them and guide them as they continue in the ministries to which God has called them.

Why am I using this language of ‘gift’? Because it’s the language used in our reading from Ephesians tonight. Look at Ephesians 4:11-13:

‘The gifts he (that is, Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (NRSV).

In the NIV it’s even more clear:

‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.

The fullness of Christ – that’s what this is all about. The job God has given to the Church is to live out the fullness of Christ before the world. But it’s not possible for each of us to do that as individuals. I by myself am not the Body of Christ, and neither are you. The Church – the whole Christian community together – is the Body of Christ, and together we live out the fullness of Christ in the sight of the world.

What is the fullness of Christ? Paul doesn’t use the word ‘love’ here, because he’s already rung the changes on that word many times in the first three chapters of Ephesians. But we really can’t start with anything else but love. What do the most famous verses in the Bible tell us?

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17).

Behind the coming of the Son – behind his ministry to people in his own time and down to the present through the Church – behind all of that is the mighty ocean of the love of God – God’s steadfast, unconditional, stubborn love.

And how does God demonstrate that love? Some modern translations say “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” – which is not a wrong idea, but leaves out an important nuance in the original. “God so loved” doesn’t just mean “God loved the world so much”; it also means “God loved the world in this way”. In other words, the specific act of love the author has in mind is the gift of the Son. God loved the world by giving the gift of his Son, who would leave his place of safety and take the risk of coming among us as one of us, to save us from all that binds us and destroys us, and to give us the gift of eternal life.

So the central fact of the character of Jesus is this outgoing, risk-taking love of God. How does the Church live out the fullness of this love? Paul says that we do it by receiving the gifts he gives us – the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We can’t live out the fullness of his character if one of those gifts is missing, or (even worse) if we refuse one of those gifts. All of those gifts are necessary to build up the Church so that we live out the fullness of Christ before the world God loves.

In the Anglican Church in recent years we’ve been a little hesitant to receive Christ’s gift of ‘evangelists’. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts that express love and pastoral care for those inside the church. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts of service and practical care for those on the outside. But the evangelist – the one who announces the good news of Jesus – the one who shares it with others and invites them to become followers of Jesus – we haven’t always received that gift quite as enthusiastically! But tonight, we’re redressing that balance. Tonight we’re celebrating this gift, and the way it helps us live out the fullness of Christ.

And I want to underline for you – going back for a moment to those verses from the Gospel of John – that evangelism is all about love. If it’s not all about love, then it really isn’t evangelism! We Christians believe that God’s gift of Jesus to the world is the greatest expression of the love of God the world has ever seen. The fact that God would come among us himself in the person of his Son, to live and die and rise again to reconcile us to himself – if that’s true, it’s the most important event in the history of this planet. It can’t be just an incidental detail. It can’t be just one item among many in the smorgasbord of religious resources.

No – the news that the God of all creation loved us in this way –  by coming among us as one of us, and by calling people to follow him – is news that needs to be shared with others. Because if it’s true, then – as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evangelism adviser said a few years ago – the best decision a human being can ever make is to follow Jesus. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says John; ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). So with love and joy in our hearts we’re called to share the good news of God’s Son with the world he came to save.

And that’s what Alison and Corinna and Jenny are going to help us to do. That’s why we’re commissioning them tonight as lay evangelists in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I can tell you, because I’ve had the privilege of getting to know them very well, that each of them – along with the others who have been part of our learning community – each of them has a wonderful story to tell of how God has been at work in their lives, helping them know Christ and follow him. God isn’t just a theory to them; God is a living reality, and for each of them, the great passion of their lives is to know God better and live out his love for others. And especially to – as my daughter likes to say to her little kids – ‘Use your words!’ These three people are not afraid to ‘use their words’ to share the love of God! In fact, when they get together, we often have the opposite problem! They have so much to say that we have a hard time getting through the agenda for the day!

I can also tell you that these three evangelists are not ashamed of living as Christians outside the walls of the church. It’s important to say this, because I think a lot of Christians are shy about that. They don’t mind being identified with Christ on Sunday mornings when they gather together with other Christians, but during the week they’d rather keep quiet about it. Sometimes that’s understandable; we know that not everyone who names the name of Christ right now is necessarily bringing credit to that name, and it would be easier for us not to be associated with those folks. I know these three feel that way sometimes too. But I also know that out in the working world, and in their daily lives with their families and friends, each of them has taken the step of somehow – not aggressively, but firmly – identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. And each of them is finding ways of effectively engaging the world they live in every day, for the sake of Jesus and his gospel.

So what do we hope our evangelists will do?

First, we hope they’ll carry on doing what they’re already doing – following Jesus and sharing his love with the people around them, by action and also by word. We hope they’ll keep growing in the skills they’ve been learning to help them do that. We hope that through their witness people who are not yet followers of Jesus will fall in love with him and begin to follow him.

Second, we hope they’ll teach and mentor others to be effective witnesses too. I find it interesting that in the reading from Ephesians the evangelists are included among the list of gifts Christ has given to the Church, to build up the Church’s life. That’s because all Christians, not just evangelists, are called to be faithful witnesses for Christ. But most of us are scared to do this.

And this is where lay evangelists can help us. I think most of us have had the experience of going to an expert for help and then finding that he or she is so far advanced that they can’t remember what it was like to be as confused as we are! I’m conscious of the fact that some clergy are like that – we use words like ‘ecclesiastical’ and ‘soteriology’ and ‘salvation history’ and ‘epistemology’, to which a lot of people respond with a blank stare and a ‘huh?’ And most clergy don’t have to live their faith in the context of a largely unbelieving or apathetic community, so it’s hard for them to relate to the struggles ordinary people have as they try to be faithful witnesses for Jesus.

But these three lay evangelists know all about those struggles! Jenny’s a property manager, and Corinna works in a penitentiary, and Ali works in student services at a university. So they are well placed to help us learn to be effective witnesses in our daily lives in the world, because that’s where they live day by day.

So we hope our evangelists will continue to share their faith and make new disciples for Jesus, and we hope they’ll teach and mentor others in their churches to do the same thing. Thirdly, we hope they’ll be leaders in helping their churches connect with the world around them. Years ago, all kinds of people used to wander into churches in times of crisis, or family occasions like baptism and weddings and funerals. Nowadays, a lot less people do that. We can’t wait for people to connect with us any more; we have to find new and creative ways of connecting with them.

This is nothing new, of course! After all, in the great commission Jesus did not say “Wait for people to come to you and then make them my disciples”! He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s up to us to make those connections, and I know these three lay evangelists will be helping their parishes find creative ways of doing that.

I want to close by saying that it’s been an enormous privilege and joy for me to work with these three, along with Sandra and Richard and Steve, as we’ve gone through the formation process together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes I’ve gone to our Saturday sessions stressed out and discouraged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but I’ve always – always – come away encouraged and revived and renewed in my joy in the Gospel, because of their enthusiasm and their joy. This is the gift they’ve given me, and it’s a gift I look forward to continuing to receive and share with them in the years ahead as we work to spread the Gospel together.

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Finding the Rhythms

As a much younger minister I spent seven years in two different parishes in the Diocese of the Arctic: All Saints’, Aklavik (1984-88) and Church of the Resurrection, Holman (now Ulukhaktok) (1988-91).

One of the things I learned there was to find and take advantage of the natural rhythms of the life of the community and the parish. For instance, in both those communities a lot of people went out on the land for the summer – to fish camps, mainly. And those who stayed in town were busy. The Arctic summer is short, and if you need to get some outdoor work done, the window for that is short too. People don’t want to be bothered by the minister at those times.

So I learned to slow down in the summer, but I also learned to do what everyone else was doing – build a new skidoo shed, or fix some broken windows, or repair a damaged roof. Summer was a good time for fixing buildings and other practical projects. That was the rhythm of life.

Now I live in Edmonton and there’s a rhythm here too. Many of my friends assume that Christmas is my busiest time of year, and they’re surprised when I tell them Easter is a lot busier! But they also don’t get the basic structure of church life in Alberta: really busy (with short lulls) from mid-September until the end of April, then mainly quiet for the four months of May to August. Our winters are long, and once the weather warms up people don’t want to be bothered with meetings and study groups – they want to get out and enjoy God’s creation.

So I run with that, and I enjoy it. Early May to mid-September is time to take a bit of holiday, to read more, to visit and spend time with individuals and to do a bit of planning. The rest of my year goes better if I do those things in the four months of Spring and Summer.

There are little lulls in the winter, too. For instance, things kick into high gear in mid-September: we start small groups and courses and study activities, and these generally run until the end of November. But we don’t do much in December; people are cruising into Christmas and their lives are taken up with that. So I’ve discovered that late November/early December is a wonderful time for me to take a week’s holiday. I get back in time to start the run-up to Christmas, but I’m refreshed from a week of rest. Christmas goes better for me if I do that.

That’s what I’m up to this week. My day off is Monday so I’m actually taking eight days’ holiday, from Monday to Monday. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re taking off to see old friends in Saskatchewan for a few days. Looks like the weather will be fairly mild (always a factor at this time of year), so driving will be okay. I’m looking forward to some good friend times, and I know I’ll come back in a better frame of mind.

Things will then get busy again: Our Christmas variety concert – planning for special events – home communions – Christmas services in nursing homes – a ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service – a ‘Lessons and Carols’ and ‘Bring a Friend’ service – and then the special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

After Christmas there’s a slow down (unless there’s a pastoral emergency; I say that because for the past four years I’ve had deaths in the parish during or just after Christmas). January is steady but not frantic. What many people don’t know is that in church offices this is ‘Annual Meeting season’; we’re busy getting reports prepared and doing other preparation work for the Annual General Meeting (which in our parish takes place in mid-February).

And then comes Lent. Usually we do some extra programming, so things kick into high gear again. Holy Week (between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) is extremely busy. But by the time Easter comes we’re near the end of April, and people give a great collective sigh of relief and start going out to the lake on weekends. Church life slows down to a leisurely crawl. If clergy and leaders are wise, they don’t try to fight that. We need that time of rest and renewal.

Rhythms of life. It’s good to find them and good to take advantage of them. Life goes better if we do.

My week

Every now and again people ask me what an Anglican priest does all week long. So I thought I’d let you know what this week looked like.

I start each day with a time of personal prayer and journalling. Then Marci and I have tea and pray Morning Prayer together.

Monday is my day off, so I stayed home.

A good part of my week is spent at my desk doing ‘preparation’. Prep work this week has included:

  • Preparing a sermon for Sunday (from start to finish this takes about 6 hours)
  • Other Sunday prep (intercessions for our early service, annotating my bulletins, church setup, posting sermons on various websites etc.)
  • Reading and preparation for our vestry meeting Wednesday night
  • Reading and preparation for our Bible Study group Thursday morning
  • Preparation for our Lay Evangelist training day Saturday (this took about 6 hours to complete)
  • Preparing and sending out a questionnaire about small groups in our church
  • Preparation for a seniors’ home service next week (it’s Tuesday morning so I won’t have time to prepare for it next week).
  • Planning for next week, and some advance planning too.
  • A little bit of reading and study (I’ve been working my way through Turnaround and Beyond, by Ron Crandall).

Meetings and appointments:

  • Tuesday I met with my office administrator at 9.00 to plan our week.
  • From 11.00 to noon Tuesday I had a computer link meeting with the search committee for a new national director for Threshold Ministries (I’m on that search committee).
  • Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to have coffee with a clergy colleague – we meet from time to time to encourage each other.
  • Tuesday evening I spent a couple of hours with a family from our church – visited with the kids and read to them, then after their bedtime I had a good long conversation with the couple.
  • Wednesday I had a meeting of our vestry (church board) in the evening
  • Thursday morning I had a morning Men’s Bible Study at a local coffee shop 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Also Thursday morning I had a meeting of the search committee for wardens and vestry members for next year 10:30 – 11:30.
  • Our lunch bunch (AKA ‘seniors’ lunch’) met at the church from 11.30 – 1.30. Good time of fellowship was had by all.
  • Later in the afternoon I went back downtown for a meeting with my bishop.
  • Tomorrow (Saturday) I’ll be leading a formation day for our diocesan Lay Evangelists in Training. It takes place at St. Margaret’s and will keep me busy from about 8.45 a.m. – 3.30 p.m.
  • Sunday I’ll be at the church by 8.30 a.m.; services are 9.00 and 10.30 a.m., with coffee hour after the second service. I’ll get home about 1 p.m.

Sometimes I have pastoral appointments Sunday afternoon; this week I don’t have any, so I’ll be taking my sabbath from 1.00 p.m. Sunday afternoon to 8.30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

And there you have it: a week in the life of a parish priest!

Pastoral patience

‘We thank you for raising up among us faithful servants for the ministry of your word and sacraments. We pray that N may be to us a godly example in word and action, in love and patience, and in holiness of life’. (Book of Alternative Services, ‘Ordination of a Priest’, prayer after communion, p.650).

I like that word ‘patience’.

When our family lived in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories in the mid-1980s, one summer we planted potatoes (not a common thing in the Arctic!). The local kids were very curious about it. Sometimes during the night (a relative term when there are 24 hours of daylight) they would dig up our potatoes to see if they were growing.

Pastors can be tempted to do that kind of thing too.

Pastoral work is slow work. You can’t rush it. It’s not unlike raising children. There are a few children who turn out to be prodigies; they’re the ones who enter university when they’re eleven. But they’re few and far between. Most kids grow and mature at a more measured pace.

Disciples are like that too. You can’t mass-produce them or place them in an accelerated growth track. The seeds of the Word of God are planted. They put down roots and begin to grow beneath the surface. After a while the tiny shoots break through the soil. As the weeks go by, the young plants grow, and eventually begin to bear fruit.

People put their faith in Christ and begin to grow. They develop habits of prayer and Bible reading. They begin to learn to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in their lives. Hard times come their way and they learn to follow Christ in the school of suffering. They learn the difficult way that they can’t rely on their own resources – they have to depend on the unseen presence of Christ. And so the process goes on.

Pastors can’t be in a rush. They have to be willing to walk beside people for a long time, and let God do his slow and patient work.

We’re not growth managers or assembly-line producers. We’re sowers of seeds, tending and watering the vulnerable young plants, protecting them from pests and weeds and inclement weather, patiently nurturing them and helping them bear fruit

May God save us from giving up too soon, from moving on too soon, from trying to rush what can’t be rushed. May God give us the gift of pastoral patience.

Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

washing-feet-ghislaine howard

The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.