Archive for November, 2014

“Called to be Saints” – (Philippians Group Presentation, November 12th)

Quick background: One of the tasks given to me at St. Philip’s (where I am currently an intern) was to lead a talk on saints and to introduce in particular the six Celtic saints depicted in beautiful stained glass on the church’s southern wall. The talk was held at 4pm so we could still catch the light. Here are my notes from that talk.

What kind of words do you think of when you think of ‘saints?’

(We recorded the following words from the group: Halo, good, grace, faith, us, stewardship of creation, prayer, comfort, humility, grandmother, perfection, and meekness; and then the names of several saints including David, Mary, Michael, Martin, and Elfrig).

Let’s invite the Bible to our conversation. Now the Bible has its own words, although obviously not in English. The English word “saints” appears in several translations. It is sometimes used as a translation of the Hebrew word חֲסִידָיו֙ (hasidaw) in the Hebrew Bible. This means “holy ones” or “godly ones,” or, in the case of the song of Hannah who was mother of the prophet Samuel, “faithful ones.” And it’s always used after a possessive – it’s always in reference to God, and ownership by God.


The Greek word most often translated as “saints” in the New Testament is ἁγίων (hagiōn). It means the same thing: “holy ones.” And what’s really interesting is that the word only shows up in one Gospel: Matthew tells us when Jesus is crucified, the curtain of the Temple is torn in two, there’s a big earthquake, and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep are raised and get up and walk around. So zombies? Probably meant to say something about how a new era has begun, post-crucifixion.


The person who really gets some use out of that word hagiōn is Paul – it comes up in a ton of his letters and the ones attributed to him. It also comes up in some of the other epistles like Hebrews and Second Peter. And someone else who uses it everywhere is the writer of Revelation. His view of the holy ones is apocalyptic and mystical in appropriate Revelation style.



So in light of all that, how do you feel when Paul says that the Church at Corinth – and, let’s not kid ourselves, WE – are called to be saints?

(Most people said a variant of “Scared.”)

Fear not. The core meaning of these words hasidaw and hagiōn, their concept of holiness is actually not about being “good,” necessarily, or even “righteous.” It actually has more to do with being “different.”


Another word that gets used a lot in Hebrew Scripture is “set apart,” or “distinct.” It’s not about necessarily being more special, or cut off from other folk. We’re meant to understand this as something that’s “not for everyday use,” like how you wouldn’t use one of our communion chalices to pour the tea we’re drinking. We use the chalice for a different purpose. This concept of being “set apart” comes up in Scripture a lot: Joseph is “set apart” from his brothers; the firstborn is “set apart” for the Lord when the great covenant is being made in Exodus. Setting things apart is usually set alongside some form of agreement or covenant. It’s paradoxical – a relationship and yet a separation.


Now again, if you’re worried that this is supposed to cut a person off from the regular world, that’s not a full understanding. That’s why the lives of the saints are so important – in Anglican tradition we believe that people becomesaints through the actions they do in their earthly lives. And this relationship isn’t just about God, but each other. You’ll notice in the Bible, we never discuss saints in the singular. It’s always plural.



Now in the Bible, that’s all we get of the saints. We have some miracles and we have the characters who eventually became saints in our tradition – the Apostles, the martyrs and such – but they’re not explicitly named saints. The saints are usually referred to in the third person, and then we have these descriptors.

So beyond that, what do saints look like in the rest of our traditions? Let’s take a look at some of the ones we have here at St. Philip’s to flesh this out a little.


This is Aidan of Lindisfarne. We celebrate him on August 31st. He was Irish but is often called the Apostle of Northumbria. Aidan became a bishop during a time when the Christian king Oswald was trying to return Christianity to Ireland after Anglo-Saxon paganism had undergone a resurgence. Oswald chose to send missionaries from the monastery of Iona rather than the Roman controlled monastery in Northumbria, and Aidan picked up where an earlier ineffective bishop left off. He founded the monastic community of Lindisfarne, which produced the stunning illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels. He also made a point of travelling on foot to many different villages, freeing slaves and giving money, room, board, and education to orphans. His model of mission involved conversing with locals face-to-face and taking an active interest in their lives. He also dined with the rich, and distributed the excessive gifts they often bestowed upon him to the poor and slaves. He was a friend of the poor and friend to the rich, and died leaning against the wall of a local church on one of his missionary trips in the seventeenth year of his episcopacy. Bishop of Durham Joseph Lightfoot claims, “Augustine was the Apostle of Kent, but Aidan was the Apostle of the English.”


Here we have Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints, affectionately known as Mary of the Gael. There has been some controversy over whether or not she was a real person. One art historian believes that the traditions of the mother goddess of a form of Celtic paganism, who was also named Brigid, have been grafted onto this figure. The first clue to that claim is that Brigid’s celebrated on February 1st, which is the date of the pagan feast of Imbolc, or the first day of spring. A second clue is this symbol: You might recognize this as the cross of St. Brigid, which may be related to an earlier pagan symbol for the sun. The Apostles of Ireland were clever in appropriating the culture of the land for their purposes, and there are a few common adaptations of pagan symbols and legends to ease the transitions between religions. Whatever their motives were, it became a part of the land’s traditions. Now St. Brigid’s crosses are made every year and have traditionally been thought to protect the house from fire.

The real Brigid may have been born in Dundalk, County Louth. Although the biographies differ, they seem to agree that one of Brigid’s parents was a slave. Several of the accounts claim that she performed miracles as a child, particularly for the benefit of the poor. Eventually, she was committed to the religious life, and granted abbatial powers. She established an oratory at Kildare which became a centre for religion and learning, soon developing into a cathedral city. She then established two monasteries and a school of art, including metalwork and illumination. She was apparently very good friends with St. Patrick, with the Book of Armagh stating that they had “but one heart and one mind.” There have been many more miracles attributed to her as an adult, most of them to do with healing and domestic tasks.


Columba’s feast day is June 9th. He was born in Ulster and trained under St. Finnian with twelve others who eventually became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He eventually entered the monastery of Clonard and as Wikipedia so poetically puts it “imbib[ed] the traditions of the Welsh Church.” He is described further by author John Crawley as “a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another.” Apparently he was a bit of a troublemaker too, as he got involved in quarrels with other monks and even induced one clan to battle a king when the king had violated a prince’s right to sanctuary with Columba. Excommunication was threatened but later lessened to exile, and he resolved during that time to win as many souls as possible for Christ. He traveled to Scotland, bringing Christianity to the Picts and other tribes up the west coast, and founded Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He guided the region’s only centre for literacy, wrote several hymns, and transcribed as many as 300 books. He was also appointed a diplomat among many of the tribes. In the Vita Columba we have accounts by the author of Columba’s prophetic revelations, miraculous works, and apparitions of angels.


Hilda of Whitby had a high-class upbringing, as her father was related to Edwin of Northumbria. She was appointed Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey by Aidan of Lindisfarne. Eventually she founded Whitby Abbey and remained until her death. Five men from her monastery later became bishops, and two joined Hilda in sainthood. Hilda’s feast day is November 17th.

The Venerable Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that kings and princes sought her advice.My favourite story about her is her support of Cædmon, however. He was a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it. Bede writes, “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace.”

She suffered from a fever for the last six years of her life but didn’t let it stop her from founding another abbey at Harkness in her last year. Legend says that the moment she died, the bells at Harkness told. Legend also has it that sea birds flying over the abbey dip their wings in her honour.


You might remember him from high school English. He might sound more familiar as “the Venerable Bede.” He is the only native Briton to achieve the title ‘Doctor of the Church,’ which he received in 1899 from Pope Leo XIII. He was born in Sunderland on the land owned by the twinned monasteries Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, and was likely from a noble family. You can see he’s standing next to Cuthbert and this is because they had a connection in life; Cuthbert was one of Bede’s disciples. He became a scholar and started to write around the age of 29. He is best known for his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which gave him the title “the Father of English history,” but he also wrote poetry and apparently was a gifted singer as well. He is buried in Durham Cathedral. His feast day is May 25th.


He was another Northumbrian saint, the patron saint of Northern England. He was likely born of a noble family in what are now the Scottish borders in the mid-630s and decided to become a monk after having a vision of St. Aidan being carried up to heaven by angels and then learning that Aidan had died that night. Cuthbert grew up and came of age during a time of conflict between Roman and Irish traditions in the church, which shaped his views. Though Cuthbert himself was educated in the Celtic tradition he accepted Roman traditions without much bother. He became famous and beloved among the people for his missionary trips, miracles, and his charm and generosity to the poor. For a while he lived a contemplative life as a hermit before being elected Bishop – under great reluctance on his part. He was only Bishop for about a year before returning to Northumberland to his cell and dying after a painful illness. He was buried at Lindisfarne the same day but through a series of escapes from marauding Danes his remains eventually came to rest at Durham Cathedral. His feast day is March 20th, although our Episcopal brothers and sisters down South celebrate him on August 31st.

So here are some of our brothers and sisters in faith. I see them as living into many of the words we have here. But can we live up to this?

(Someone outright said, “No.”)

Don’t worry. It’s a trick question.

It’s not about living up to an expectation in order to earn your wings. It’s about integrity – not simple truthfulness and a goody-two-shoes “saintly” bearing. It’s not even about being saved.

It’s about turning around and seeing the sunrise that has already begun, and running into it.

At a certain point, miracles don’t matter. Even an exemplary life is something that’s great but not required. How does the saying go? “All may, some should, none must.”

What does matter, in a very general sense, is recognizing the great gift of life you and the entire cosmos have been given. In a Christian mindset, it is discovering and beginning your baptismal ministry and making it determine your truth and your actions.

It’s the work done by love for love by our friends in the places where they were living that made them saints. It was not about miracles. It was about saying “Yes.”

This also must be balanced with the humility that God in Christ is working already in every corner of the world, and was doing so even before any of us saw it happen. We don’t need to join in, but it’s so much more beautiful when we do, because then we are participating in the mystical work of the already/not yet kingdom.

aj moylesThat’s why I brought this. Here is one of our saints: St. A.J. Moyles of Dunbar Heights. We can giggle, but I’m actually being quite serious. He was one of the founders of this parish. He did many good things and gave us the community we enjoy today. God was already weaving miracles in Dunbar Heights before we got here. We just wanted to testify to it.

Anyone can be a saint – from this man and those who worked with him, who gave us so much, to the ungrateful rabble at Corinth. It’s not about being good enough to become a saint. It’s about living into an identity that has already been given to you.

“The Foolish Bridesmaid” (Sermon, November 9th)

Matthew 25:25-13

25‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

This parable has holes, doesn’t it? A bridegroom, but no bride. A wedding feast – was there a wedding beforehand? Where are the bridesmaids supposed to get oil at midnight? What does the oil represent, and how can we make sure we have enough of it?

We know that in a parable everything has a hidden meaning. Historically, most interpretations see the wedding feast as the final restoration of all things that we hear about in Revelation, or that Mary celebrates in the Magnificat.

Well, I want to wonder something. I wonder if this feast was the reception after the wedding. And I wonder if the wedding was the Incarnation: Jesus coming among us, walking, talking, eating and drinking, telling stories, warning us about what was to come, telling us to prepare ourselves.

We’ve been to that wedding. We were born many years later but we were there. We don’t need to have seen Jesus face-to-face to have experienced it. We saw it at our baptism – the reaching out of God, and our reaching back, even if we weren’t conscious of it at the time, for the community’s reaching out on our behalf was enough. We also celebrate it every day. When we love another as we love ourselves we accept our invitation to the wedding. When we allow a vestigial or damaging piece of ourselves to die so that another may live more fully – whatever that looks like – we are present at that wedding of flesh and the infinite.

That’s good news.

But that’s not what this parable is about, is it? The ceremony is over. Now the reception can begin: the great celebration – if you’ll permit me, the wedding night when earth and heaven join together fully and forever at the end of the age.

Where are we now? Are we outside the door waiting for the bridegroom? Are we trimming our wicks and breathing a sigh of relief that we brought enough oil? Or are we scrambling down the alley trying to make our way back in time?

All of the bridesmaids fall asleep. The bridegroom is delayed. It takes a long time between the wedding and the feast.

I think it is easy during these darkening hours to forget the colour and pageantry of the wedding, easy to forget that a promise was made to return.

You can see warnings against forgetting all through Matthew’s Gospel, especially in the chapters before this one. Jesus tells us to beware of false Messiahs, and warns us that there will be great suffering. He was speaking in the context of the Roman Empire…but I think we still know what that means today. We might be tempted by people or things or movements that seem like the answer to all our problems, all our prayers – the latest toys, the slickest campaign ads – even though we know deep down they’re not.

And great suffering – well, we know suffering. Remembrance Day is this week – one hundred years since the beginning of World War I. After World War I church attendance plummeted. Too many of those who returned remembered being recruited from the pulpit. Too many came home having seen things that made them question whether there was any mercy in the world. And World War II, well – there’s people in this room that remember what that was like first hand. And even though my generation may not have known mass conscription or bombing drills, we came of age with the Columbine shooting and 9/11 on our TV screens, and we have organized protests that did not succeed in their mission. Violence continues to smoulder around the world.

All of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Some of the preachers of the early church said the sleep represented death. Maybe…but maybe it could have been despair.

We’ve all felt it – personally and communally.

Now if you look at the statistics, things are actually getting better. People are speaking out and doing great things – adults and children. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that looking at the news. I feel like in our parable, if we’re the bridesmaids, trying as hard as we can to stay awake, the media is like people passing by on the street who say, “Go home. He’s not coming.”

“He’s not coming.”

We all fall asleep – prepared and unprepared. Who knows what causes some to be prepared and some to not be? The parable doesn’t say.

We all fall asleep – and the cry goes up: “He’s coming!”

He doesn’t come with a big fanfare, like the Rapture in the Left Behind novels. Matthew’s Gospel says he comes like a thief in the night. Maybe that’s why we have to light our lamps. We’ll miss him otherwise.

What is the oil for a lamp of hope? Who can say? A better question is, “How are we supposed to get oil at midnight?” The parable doesn’t even say if the unprepared bridesmaids find any. It just says that by the time they got back it was too late.

I don’t know if there is a point at which it will be too late to light lamps of hope to join the feast, a point where we will miss the bridegroom for good.

What I do know is that there is oil for my lamp among this community right now, and maybe it’s oil for your lamp too, or it could be.

Maybe, if you and our brother Matthew will permit me, I can add an epilogue to the parable.

‘One of the foolish bridesmaids, locked outside, decided to write a letter to the bridegroom and slip it under the door. She set down her lamp, scavenged a discarded scrap of paper, and wrote:

“Beloved bridegroom,

I do not know when or if this will reach you. By the time you see it my hair may have turned grey and the hand which holds the lamp may be shaky. I will definitely be hungry and tired, for you can be certain that I will never sleep again.

I will be here, though.

At the wedding, there were so many to greet, and embrace, and bless, and welcome to the family. People came from all over just to see you resplendent in your robe of flesh, shining with the jewels of humankind’s best offerings – community, passion, faith, and love.

You, the bridegroom of my heart: brother, beloved, bone of my bone.

How were we supposed to believe you were really coming, after spending a years’ long night in this wicked city? People passing by laughed at us! “He’s not coming,” they said, and “What? Are you still here?”

But we would do it all again even if it took you twice as long. Except we’d bring some stupid oil.”

As she slides the letter under the door, she pauses to look at her pathetic lamp, dry as a bone and just as useful. The darkness is total now. The streets outside the banquet hall are silent. There is nothing left.

As she leans back against the bricks of the hall to look up at the sky, she is surprised at how warm they are. She can feel music from the feast pulsing against her back, and it makes her smile. She no longer feels hungry, and her eyelids are no longer heavy. She even recognizes the song and joins in – one voice, maybe half a beat behind, but the same song, the same story.

And suddenly, a grinding of wood on wood: someone is opening a window above her head. An amazing swath of light envelopes her. The sounds of the banquet become deafening; smells cascade upon her like a waterfall.

As she lifts her head, blinking into the light, she sees a shadow, gradually becoming clearer as her eyes adjust. Hands reach out – the hands she longed to kiss – and lower down a tray, and on the tray:

A fresh loaf of bread, and a glass of wine.’




“The Dance” (Sermon – All Souls)

John 11:21–27

21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

The month of November begins with a winding down of the light, and we with Christians around the world mark it with two celebrations: All Saints and All Souls. It’s good to have both, isn’t it? Not everyone is a saint, but everyone’s life, for better or worse, comes to an end. Loss is a part of creation, and we have ways which mark and acknowledge what has been engraved into our finite bodies.

There are two ways to mark the loss of someone we loved. One of them is a prescribed action, cobbled together across time and cultures: the ritual of mourning. Funerals, burial procedures, the platitudes we tell the mourner: all of those things which we do according to custom fall under this category.

The second way is not prescribed but is ingrained, and that is grief. There are ways of grieving that are prescribed by culture, but we are often not very good at following them, and sometimes the prescribed ways are actually dangerous. Instead of thinking of grief as a process or an illness, today I want to speak of it as a party, specifically, a ball. Not in the sense that it’s fun. It’s not – it’s dreadful most of the time. It’s a ball in the sense that it is a big dance, where couples, trios, and quartets weave in and out in a grand display. We are the guests but often there against our will. The feelings that accompany grief swirl back and forth in a dizzying rhythm: sadness, anger, betrayal, relief: they are our dance partners. Sometimes the dance is flawless, and sometimes our toes are trod upon. Sometimes we recognize the song, and sometimes we don’t. All the prescribed platitudes in the world cannot fully remove us from this dance, whether we want them to or not. Finally, the host of the ball is Time, and only she can tell us when we’re allowed to leave. Even then, we may leave for a time only to find ourselves invited back again.Wilhelm_Gause_Hofball_in_Wien

Martha is at the dance when Jesus comes to her. Her sister Mary is also there, dancing with Weeping. It’s difficult to be sure of whom Martha is dancing with because we can’t hear the tone of her voice through the text. It could be Faith or it could be Platitudes. Maybe she’s dancing with both at once.

Either way, Jesus, Lord of the Dance, cuts in on Martha and her partner. As Jesus and Martha spin around the room, Jesus changes the beat. “I AM the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus in John’s Gospel teaches that we can always go deeper – deeper than our first assumptions, or if you like, our prescribed notions. He tells Nicodemus to be born again. “That’s impossible!” No, Nicodemus, go deeper. He tells the Samaritan woman he can give her living water. “I’d love to drink that!” No, go deeper. He says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes, on the last day.” No, Martha, go deeper. What Jesus is trying to show us is about more than performing resurrection magic, or enfolding our beloved dead into eternal embrace in heaven, or whatever happens to people when they die. That’s not what’s important about this story. We have to go deeper.

Jesus is the resurrection AND the life – not biological beating heart life but something more than that: the deeper life – not just for Lazarus but for Martha and Mary and all of us. It’s the deeper life we all are offered by God, the one who dances with us, who came into the world to learn grief firsthand. It’s the deeper life that’s marked by an integration of loss into our own stories, rather than denying or letting it define us. It’s the deeper life that doesn’t come according to our schedule or our needs. It’s the deeper life that must at the absolute least be hungered for, or it won’t ever come at all, because it does not insist on its own way, and it won’t come if it’s not invited.

Maybe this is what it means when Martha says, “the Messiah who is coming into the world.” Maybe for our purposes today, we can give it a little revision: “the Messiah who is arriving at the ball.”

Sometimes it’s so crowded in that dance hall it’s hard to see him. If you never catch sight of him while you’re stuck spinning around in there, it’s okay. He understands…and he sees you.