Do You Love Me?

I was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada on the Feast of St. Andrew, November 30, 2017. Here is the text of the homily I preached the next day.

First Eucharist December 1, 2017 IMG_6230
(attended by nearly 100 people from Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, United, Evangelical traditions and non-Christian persuasions)
Isaiah 55:6—11, Psalm 34, Philippians 4:4–9, John 21:15–19 

It is rare that there is ever a legitimate reason to change the Scripture readings from what the Lectionary assigns. But somehow the doom and gloom in these last days of the church year clash a bit with the festive spirit present here today. So after appropriate Anglican consultation and permission I chose readings that speak into the new ministry I am beginning among you today as an ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Canada.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Ordination16

Interesting, isn’t it, how personal events can affect how … words … land in our lives. These words from Isaiah were addressed to a people discouraged, depressed, and lost. Isaiah’s words of God’s promise and faithfulness poured into them the balm of hope and trust, courage and perseverance. And we all need such words in times of distress and pain.

But sacred words are not limited to specific times and places. That is why they are considered ‘sacred.’ Their power to sustain and guide and comfort the human spirit is activated in every time and place, in every circumstance. That is why I felt drawn to Isaiah’s words, to the joy Paul expresses in his letter to the Philippians, and to Jesus’ words to Peter in John’s Gospel this morning.

At the time of Jesus’ greatest need, Peter had betrayed his dear friend Jesus, no less than three times. Now the risen Christ asks him, three times, “do you love me?” We usually understand this three-fold asking as Peter’s chance to redeem himself and to be forgiven. And yes, that is certainly a valid understanding.

But we not need limit ourselves to this one understanding. My experience of being called into priestly ministry has shown how this same question by the risen Christ can fuel and guide and bless and authenticate … a vocation. I will spare you details of this 25-year journey that have led to this joyful day; that’s fodder for another book someday! But I will say this: at every turn of surrender in service and ministry, Jesus kept asking, through the needs of God’s people and the desire in my heart, ‘do you love me?’ And I kept answering, ‘yes, Lord, you know I love you,’ sometimes with exasperation in my spirit, as in, ‘well, isn’t this enough yet?’

And Christ repeated the question, each time with new depth, only fueling the desire to live God’s call ever more fully and blessing that desire by the summons to ‘feed my lambs, feed my sheep.’ I knew that fullness of life lie in fully embracing what God had placed in my heart. I could taste it with every yes I mustered. Even when, like Peter, there have been and still are times that I ‘betray’ Jesus – through sinful acts, ego-driven ambition, by lukewarm engagements, by nursing hurts and resentments, or even downright denials of his hold on my spirit, none of that deters Christ’s summons, ‘do you love me?’IMG_6260

Each of us is on a quest to realize our fullest potential in total surrender to the promise God has planted in our hearts, minds and spirits. After all, the place where we are called is where the world’s hunger meets our deepest joy. But like Peter, our own failings and betrayals can hinder that quest. Locked doors, in our hearts or in our external circumstances, can hinder that quest. But as with Peter, God keeps asking gently but surely, waiting for our response to just one question, ‘do you love me?’

Deep down, it is the one fundamental question in each human heart: do you love me? Do you love me ask the fragile eyes of an elderly relative or neighbour needing reassurance and presence; do you love me asks the earth pleading for responsible stewardship; do you love me ask our First Nations sisters and brothers yearning for reconciliation and healing. Do you love me cries the child needing food, family and shelter; do you love me challenges the rebellious teenager famished for belonging and community. Do you love us … asks a faith community needing a pastor. Do you love me, asks God in the depths of our hearts through God’s dream for us. Do you love me asks Jesus in the calling to a holy ministry. We find ourselves in different places with Jesus’ question, and with God’s  dream for us, Someday, some place, the question will come to you, maybe it already has. Most likely, the question will present itself, as it did for me, in ways least expected, ‘do you love me?’

One of the ways this question by the risen Christ has taken on new meaning is in this 500th Anniversary year of the Reformation. The many events that have brought Christians from all stripes together this past year, from the very top to the very bottom, have moved us swiftly from a drab “ecumenical winter” to a full-fledged ecumenical spring-time. We are now answering Jesus together: Yes, Lord, you know that we love you by the love we now extend to one another. What an exciting time to minister in God’s holy catholic church!

Our ecclesial divisions have been a scandal only paralleled by Peter’s own betrayal of his Lord. Our historical conflicts, disputes and outright condemnations have fractured the Body of Christ on earth to the point of discrediting the very News that was supposed to be … Good!

This year, finally, we have reason to rejoice. From Pope Francis/Archbishop of Canterbury, and other world confessional communions, down to small groups in small communities we have heard Jesus’ question anew – do you love me in your Reformed, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Quaker, United, Baptist … sisters and brothers? Do you love me …. in your Jewish, Celtic, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Indigenous, atheist and agnostic sisters and brothers? Do you love me in the lost and rejected, in the victims and outcasts? Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me, we heard in church last Sunday.

We witnessed a powerful example of this radical loving in Pope Francis this past week on his visit to Myanmar. Seeing the images of his meeting with the Buddhist community makes it crystal clear that the encounter itself is the message and answer to Jesus’ question: do you love me?

Despite our horrible track record – not unlike Peter – God keeps pressing us – feed my sheep, feed my lambs. Despite our failings and betrayals, God keeps asking us. Despite perceived locked doors, externally or internally, the risen Christ appears and begs us, ‘do you love me?’ And when we finally surrender to this pursuing God, we too will experience what Peter did: when we were young (& foolish) we went where we wanted and did what we wanted. But once we give our lives to God’s dream for us, once we say, yes, I love you – to every aching and begging heart – indeed “someone” does put a belt around us and takes us where we would rather not go. Loving unconditionally has a way of doing this…

Yet, paradoxically, that very place which we would not choose of our own accord, nevertheless holds the key to fullness of life and love in more ways than we could ever ask for or imagine, because we give ourselves over to a reality beyond ourselves. I’d like to think that this is what our gathering today is about – a taste of the heavenly banquet, a reality beyond ourselves, as we have come from different churches and different backgrounds to unite around one holy ministry and one holy table. A bit like dancing on the walls that still separate and divide in order to fuel our dream, God’s dream, towards full, visible unity.

My husband Jim and daughter Rachelle know all about seeds and the growing conditions necessary for seeds to germinate and thrive. Incidentally, both Jim and I work with seeds: Jim with seeds in plants, I with seeds in the human heart. Our hearts are filled with seeds; seeds of weeds and thistles, of course, but most of all seeds pregnant with divine promise, good seeds waiting for the right soil, the right season, the right situation, the right question that will make them sprout and grow – do you … love … me?

While the seed of my call did sprout several decades ago it still took a long time to come to full bloom. But bloom it does now, for God does not give up that easily! Despite our failings and screw-ups, despite our pain and desperation, despite locked doors, God’s seeds of life and love keep pulsating, stubbornly and undeterred, with promise and hope – do you love me? Listen to the whispering of the spirit: is that listening obstructed by locked doors, or clouded by hurts and missed opportunities, by resentments and pain?Do not worry about anything, says Paul to the Philippians and to us today, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Do the whisperings sound impossible and unrealistic? Really … ?

 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,Family1
and do not return
until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it …

Now … let it be so. AMEN

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I have Seen the Lord!

Today, July 22, is one of my favourite feasts in the church calendar — Mary Magdalene. Deep connections and affection well up for this courageous woman of Christ, the first witness to the resurrection, the one commissioned by the risen Lord himself to “Go and tell.”

This “Apostle to the Apostles” has played a big role in my ability to embrace the priestly calling God placed in my heart some 25 years ago. Mary rushed alongside me as I struggled with the tension between the intimate new beckoning God was forging in the depth of my very being and the Roman Catholic prohibition to claim that same calling. It was she who made me realize that it was the risen Christ calling me, it was she who helped me echo the cry from her heart and recognize it as my own: “I have seen the Lord!” Rarely have I experienced such an intimate identification with a Biblical figure besides Jesus himself.

It is Mary’s bold witness that validated my calling as coming from God through Jesus. It is she who helped me to trust Christ’s summons in my heart to “go and tell.” It was she who held my trembling fearful heart as I allowed the priestly calling to mold and grow my inner landscape into a fertile field for God’s service at the heart of a Church tradition that both nurtured and inspired, dismissed and feared this calling in a woman. I owe Mary Magdalene a tremendous debt of gratitude and honour for her unbidden yet loving and generous gifts of guidance and strength, of courage and vision.

Given this personal and enduring friendship with Mary Magdalene, I fully endorse that she is regarded as a guiding light, an inspiration and role model for all women who feel a divine call to full priestly ministry, a call that Rome continues to resist and even deny. My heart is in full solidarity with these women, even as I am now preparing to fulfill this call in the Anglican tradition (which btw considers itself a full part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ). But as I am now standing in a different ecclesial place, I am beginning to see different things and beginning to see the same things in a different light.

I have to ask the obvious: Why is it so painful to move to another expression of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? A rhetorical question maybe, for I know the reason well; I lived it intensely for many years. The Roman Catholic Church is my ancestral and spiritual home; how can I possibly “turn my back” on this holy Mother Church? Somehow leaving the home of our biological childhood seems obvious and expected. We consider it normal and healthy to leave the family nest in order to stand on our own two feet and find our own path. However, now that I have moved to the Anglican expression of Gospel discipleship I am making a surprising discovery: I have not left my ecclesial home, “home” went with me. Just as the lessons of my upbringing continue to guide me in adulthood, so the best of Roman Catholicism continues to animate life in my new ecclesial home.

But just as our upbringing bestows on us both blessings and curses, so does our ecclesial upbringing. Part of growing up, cleaning up and waking up is to exorcise and heal all that binds us in negative and hurtful ways. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to make the denominational move: I wanted to take as little unresolved negative baggage with me as possible, and worked hard to purify the motives for the move.

Blending the best Roman Catholic spiritual attributes with the Anglican gifts and blessings, new configurations are now growing in my spirit, leading to deeper insights and richer expressions of ministry and service. Would this have been possible had I remained safely (even though painfully) at “home”? Sometimes, no often, it takes leaving home in order to discover a bigger, wider and better home.

Which brings me to the next question. In the past 50 years the Christian family as a whole has been on a momentous ecumenical journey. We used to kill each other in the name of the Prince of Peace! It’s therefore momentous that we have now moved into the joyful recognition of the risen Christ in one another, animating and guiding each tradition according to its calling and charism. We have been echoing Mary Magdalene’s startling exclamation: we have seen the Lord in one another.

This remarkable achievement is truly cause for great rejoicing, especially in this 500th year since the conflicts of the 16th century splintered the Body of Christ in the west into countless fragments. And we are certainly celebrating this year, from small ecumenical study groups in rural communities right up to Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Orthodox patriarchs.

But in the euphoria of celebration, we also need to continue asking: what are the practical spiritual and ecclesial implications of the significant strides we have been making towards Christian Unity? What is the Christian Unity we seek? If it is not uniformity, as most will agree, then how does the abiding diversity of our ecclesial understandings and practices challenge our understanding of Church as encompassing more than one tradition? And if we truly honour other traditions for the unique gifts and practices they share in the Body of Christ, do all need to embrace similar practices? Do all, and Rome in particular, need to ordain women? Now I know that even asking this question will not go over well with RC advocates for women’s ordination. Nevertheless the question deserves attention. Notwithstanding the very valid critiques of ecclesial patriarchy and clericalism in the RC Church, I cannot help but wonder. Is the new thing God is working out in our ecumenical journey that we grow our ecclesial vision so large, that moving to another tradition will no longer feel like betraying and leaving “Holy Mother Church” because “Holy Mother Church” really includes all traditions who profess Christ Jesus as Lord and Saviour?

Mary stood at the tomb weeping in grief and loss. “They” had taken away her Lord and she didn’t know where “they” had laid him. She grieved deeply for what was now over and gone, what was now no longer possible, or so she thought. The One who had healed and transformed her life, the one who had fed her soul was gone, forever. Now what? I felt a similar desperation when I first realized God was calling me to priestly ministry. In fact, two Marys rushed to my side in that painful moment. That visceral reality-check caused two burning questions, each connected with each Mary, to spring from my heart in fear and trembling: “How can this be?” (Luke 1: 34) and “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:13).

The two Marys and I have traveled a long journey together. We’ve grown a deep and abiding friendship. Each Mary modeled how to give my fiat to God. Their witness, each in her own way, have guided and sustained and inspired my trembling heart. Now with great joy and deep satisfaction, I serve two rural parishes as an Anglican deacon, preparing for ordination to the priesthood in four months. I have come a long ways.

Today I salute you, Mary Magdalene. You have fed my courage to give my yes to the summons of the risen Jesus: “Go and tell.” My tears of pain and grief have turned into tears of joy and fullness. You, Mary, are still my trustworthy partner in mission and ministry, as I lead God’s people in worship and preach each Sunday with your passion, courage and conviction: “I have seen the Lord!”

For another article on Mary Magdalene, click here.

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