CATHEDRAL

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Pentecost Noise 

 This past Sunday was Pentecost, the birthday of the church. We recall how those first disciples were locked away in an Upper Room; afraid. Suddenly, the room was filled with noise and the disciples encountered the spirit in those ancient symbols of God of wind and fire. (Acts 2:1-21) 

 The dsiciple’s fear evaporated and they were inspired and enthused. They left that Upper Room and took their faith to where it properly belonged. They went into the streets and among the people. They were so enthusiastic that people thought they were drunk. And in a manner of speaking they were. Their experience of the spirit and their encounters with the Risen Jesus empowered them so that they took the name Christian and they began to share a mission and message that changed the world.

In our Cathedral, Pentecost Sunday was also the Sunday when we celebrated the children and young people who worship in our community. What a joy and what a wonderful example our worshipping children are to us adults of what it means to be energetic and enthusiastic about their faith. 

There are so many positive memories of that service that reveal to me how blessed we are as a community. I still have visions of our youngest children running up the aisle to hear the children’s story. I think of our readers, one about to graduate from High School this year, still coming faithfully to take his turn as a Server. The other, who worked dilligently on his pronounciation of Pathians, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia. Imagine all he wanted was a reading with no difficult words.

I think of the young man who cantored the Psalm with his Dad and then played beautiful communion music as an accomplished musician. I remembered the anthem by two beautiful sisters, one a teenager and the other so short that only her pigtails could be seen behind the lectern, but with a voice so clear and beautiful that it hardly seemed it could belong to one so young. I think of the little boy who comes every Sunday in the arms of his parents and who is our most enthusiastic communcant, reaching out to receive the body of Christ and then grinning beause he values so greatly being included.

All week I have heard the children’s thoughtful comment at the story time and their giggling, joking and plotting together at coffee hour. How lucky I was at the door to have a little 4-year old tell me about her dance recital coming up later in the day. This is all proof that the spirit is in the church until God’s kingdom, the kingdom that is and will be, comes. The Spiirt is indeed resting on the church.

She comes sailing on the wind, her wings flashing in the sun,

On a journey just begun, she flies on.

And in the passage of her flight, her song rings out through the night,

full of laughter, full of light, she sails on.

Receive my Spirit 

 The scripture readings in the Easter season reveal some of the trials and conquests of the early church. They tell stories of great joy like the story of Cleopas and the other disciple discovering that their companion on the road to Emmaus is the resurrected Jesus. There is also the story of Thomas the Apostle being able to see and touch the resurrected Jesus and believe. 

 This Sunday we are reading the story of the martyrdom of Stephen. A very young early Christian, Stephen was stoned to death because of his Christian beliefs. In his dying Stephen is given a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God. He cries out to Jesus to receive his spirit and he embraces this vision which gives him the great power to forgive those who are putting him to death. 

 After the death of Jesus those disciples hid away in an upper room, disheartened and afraid. There are times in our lives when things can seem equally hopeless. The world is experiencing an unprecedented void of real leadership. Every newscast seems to bring even more dire news of chaotic reactive political response and environmental catastrophe. At this particular moment Canadians are feeling empathy for the people of Ontario and Quebec who are losing their homes to flooding. Once in one hundred year disasters are happening every decade as we feel the enormous impact of global warming. 

 The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a transformational story for the early disciples and the early church Stephen’s response to his dying is persuasive evidence of the power of the resurrection in the life of the early church. We are Easter people and our foundation is built on a premise that the stone that the builder rejected has become our chief cornerstone. Death will not have the last word. 

 We are reading these scripture stories in the context of the season of spring. Those of us living in this part of the northern hemisphere are witnessing the transformation of the earth. The long cold season of winter is losing its grip on us. There are signs. The birds are singing. The new buds are poking out on the branches. The lambs are dancing in the fields. Even from my office I can see the purple, white and gold of the crocuses, the first flowers. God is renewing the face of the earth. Death will never have the last word. We are Easter people.

                               Lent and Winter Length 

 Last Sunday we passed the halfway point in our Lenten journey towards the great Christian festival of Easter. The Easter images of tulips and newborn fleecy white lambs and golden chicks seem far removed from our climate circumstances here in Western Newfoundland, where we are in the first of three days of what our local meteorologists are calling a spring storm. Isn’t is the whole purpose of spring to exile to the annals of history the winter weather of 2017? Alas, not here. The only thing white and fleecy in my world are the snowdrifts.

 Now I do not believe that climate change is a conspiracy of the Chinese government like one of our world leaders with the bigly intellect. But I do not attribute spring storms here to global warming. The reality is that we have at least one more month where a snow storm is always a possibility. That is why when we Canadians go abroad we sometimes refer to ourselves as the frozen chosen. I do find it difficult though to reconcile what is happening in my indoor and outdoor life. Outdoors, it is clearly still winter. When I go inside though I am confronted with tulips (cardboard renditions mostly) bunnies and the aforementioned woolly white lambs and golden-foiled chocolate chicks. 

 In my heart I am longing for my inside world to become my outside world. I want winter and its death grip to leave and to feel the restorative resurrection of spring. I want the silence of winter to be replaced with the spring sound of the chirping of birds. Like Lazarus emerging from the tomb (this week’s gospel) I want to throw away winter’s burial clothes of coats and stocking caps and mittens. I want to see the new life emerging on those docile lifeless branches. 

Still, I know that the sweetness of spring will be made all the sweeter because I am compelled to wait patiently for the world to be reborn. It is a bit analogous with what is happening in our church year. We are in the midst of Lent. Many have not noticed. Even Christians increasingly distance themselves from the Lenten journey. Ash Wednesday crowds have dwindled. The church’s call for fasting and focused prayer and charity are all but ignored. 

 In just a few more weeks we will arrive at our destination and hear the Good News that Jesus is risen. It will not resonate as it ought though if we have not journeyed with Jesus. You see we can only appreciate fully the glory of the resurrection if we have traveled with Jesus to Bethany and then to Jerusalem. We need to be there waving our palms as Jesus enters Jerusalem. We need to accompany Jesus to the upper room for the Last Supper. We need to stick with Jesus as He is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. We need to go to Pilate’s court for the trial. We need to stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and we need to keep a vigil on Saturday night. If we do that then the glory of the resurrection will be more real for us than it has ever been and we will be reborn just like the Spring Earth.

                            Why do we pray?

The photograph reminded me of a rare sight that I saw in Jerusalem when I was there last year. Two elderly gentlemen, one dressed clearly as a Jew and the other as a Muslim were walking together engaged in conversation as the old friends that they likely were. As they neared the western wall they shook hands and the Jewish man headed in the direction of the western wall while the Muslim man headed toward the Al-Aqsa mosque. I suspect they both prayed.

 When I was a teen I remember being fascinated watching British journalist, author and some would say theologian Malcolm Muggeridge arguing passionately on television that television was evil. It seemed a bit bizarre to me that a person would choose the very medium they are condemning to deliver their message. Yet I find myself in a similar role. I am a priest who questions sometimes the way that the church uses prayers.

 In the place where I minister we hold regular worship which involves a great deal of prayer. I visit hospitals and I pray with those who are gravely ill or dying and their families. I find in those context that prayers soothes and deepens faith. I have a rich personal prayer life. I have always been attracted to the Benedictine tradition where people meet for corporate worship but also practice personal contemplative prayer as they perform their daily task of making the cheese or tending the animals and crops or brewing the beer or whatever other tasks the monks are doing in support of the monastery and community. Any who know me will know that I am attracted to the Franciscan model that Francis of Assisi best expressed by saying, “Preach the gospel. When necessary use words.”

 There is prayer that I find unhelpful though. I have never been enamored about those occasions when I am asked to pray at the opening of an event. I don’t like saying grace at secular community meals, especially in places where you have to compete to be heard. I have always believed that providing an opportunity for participants to pray quietly is more effective. It drives me to distraction to see clergy praying at political conventions, union meetings and even city council chambers. It seems to me that sometimes we find ourselves blessing things that God might not bless. This type of prayer really is open to manipulation. 

A Polish military chaplain colleague told me a story about how the Russian Communists worked. In one small village the children were brought out of the school one day to pray in the school yard. They were poor and there was not a great deal to eat. The children were encouraged to pray to God for bread. They did and there was no bread. The next day they were in the yard again and this time they were encouraged to pray to Lenin for bread. Shortly after they began praying the bread trucks arrived. 

I may as well go for broke and say that the Wesleyan style of worshiping and praying loudly in the town square or in some other conspicuous spot does not do much for me either. In fact I have never understood it. I have friends who enjoy this style of worship a great deal but other than personal gratification what does it accomplish? Some of my friends tell me it is about witnessing their faith, but if you want to be a witness then take the advice of Francis of Assisi and feed the hungry, visit the sick or those in prison. Reach out your hands to those in need. Welcome the refugee. Take care of the dying. In the gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6) Jesus encourages those who would be His followers to be generous people of prayer. He rejects, however, those whose prayer life is accomplished only by drawing attention to themselves instead of to God. It reminds us that the purpose of prayer and worship is to deepen our relationship with God.

The Stone of Sacrifice

In the next week or so on the 1 March, Christians around the world will begin the season of Lent. Lent begins with the solemn day of Ash Wednesday where people are smudged with ashes and this reminder of our mortality is spoken: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

If there ever was a season when the church could be called counter cultural it is Lent. Lent is really about service, suffering and sacrifice. We Christians try to deepen our spiritual journey toward God, using as our example the earthly life of Jesus and his willingness to die for us and for the entire world.

For those outside of Christianity it is sometimes difficult to grasp the Christian fascination with sacrifice. One of our earliest and most revered symbols is the cross, a means of execution. Notwithstanding the fascination with zombies in our present age, the average person spends as little time reflecting on themes of death and suffering as they can.

For sure sacrifice is not a recurring theme in our leadership in the western world today. When pressed for an example of sacrifice in his own life, the current President of the United States was unable to provide one concrete example. In Canada our youthful jet-setting Prime Minister was roundly criticized for his Christmas vacation on a private Caribbean Island of a billionaire friend by our equally youthful jet-setting leader of the opposition who spent her Christmas bobbing around the same Caribbean in the yacht of her billionaire friend. They are all for the middle class. They just loathe spending time with us or living in the lifestyle in which we live.

Perhaps this is one of the greatest attractions of Jesus. Lent recalls the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. There, Jesus was tempted by Satan to abandon the mission and use His unique status to attain earthly power. Jesus rejects all of this temptation revealing that He had come into the world to change it and save it.

Ultimately, this mission of Jesus would lead Him to Jerusalem where He would be tried, convicted and executed in short order. At the root of Christian theology is an understanding that Jesus needed to do this in order that His sacrifice would be an atonement for the shortcomings of the world.

The end of the journey for Jesus was what is now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This massive building, built by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century, housed the hill of Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus.

It also contains the Anointing Stone. In fact when you walk into the Church the first thing you see is the Anointing Stone and the mural behind it. (I have attached the pictures of both the stone and mural at the top of this blog.) Christians believe that it was on this stone that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea prepared the body of Jesus for burial. It is a sacred place where many Christians lay out a cloth to be blessed that will be kept as a burial shroud for their own funeral.

Lent can be a wonderful spiritual journey. It ultimately leads to an unjust death, but the beauty of the story gives Christians the great hope that this end is not an end at all. It is best appreciated when we journey through this season with Jesus. Understanding deeply His hardship and suffering allows us to become more accepting of the difficult times in our own lives, allowing us to see beyond them to a time and place when all suffering will end and all sacrifice will be unnecessary.

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Dean Baxter's Musings | CATHEDRAL