St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us


February 5th Epiphany 2, 2020     John Marsh

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Let’s begin with a clarification…

While we will focus on the Isaiah passage and the psalm, because to my mind, they speak to our context, the primary issue of today’s gospel text, which the gospel of John belabours, is to establish Jesus as superior to John the Baptist. This may have been important to the first century, it is, however, of little importance for us today. As confusing as it may be to confessional mindsets, you can follow Jesus without belittling John, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or anyone else for that matter.

So, let’s move on…

Imagine living as one so inspired by the experience of the holy, that which we name as god, that you are wholly committed to your exiled community.

Imagine the passion – later to enflame countless souls throughout the generations – that could override the suffering of failure¹ and concerns about futility:

“I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (See Isaiah 49:4a)

Despite real failure, perhaps you can imagine that labour is not futile:

“yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” (See Isaiah 49:4b)

Perhaps the passion, the inspiration, is honoured by the work itself, the work being both means and end.

In other words, as I have said many times before, it’s about the work…

It’s the work which is light in darkness (see Isaiah 9:2) and, small though it may be - remember how little light is required to illumine the way - it reaches beyond boundaries to illumine others throughout generations:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant…to restore the tribes of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations… (Isaiah 49:6a)

The work – doing the work, giving voice to the work, embodying the work – transcends the suffering of ‘failure’, is more than the usual judgements imposed upon ‘one deeply despised and abhorred by the nations’. (see Isaiah 49:7a)

Beyond, or perhaps better, within, the dynamic of success and failure, one is chosen for the work:

“…the Lord, the Holy One of Israel…has chosen you” (Isaiah 49:7b)

And what is the work?

Beyond being ‘a light’, the text does not specifically say but perhaps, a partial answer is to be found in hearing the psalmist’s voice.²

In today’s psalm, despite the writer’s passionate encounter with the holy, there has been resistance, pushback, such that the author needed to be pulled from ‘the desolate pit’ and placed securely on solid ground. (see Psalm 40:2)

Nevertheless, despite pushback – and let’s be clear, resistance may create real suffering – it is still about the work:

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is written upon my heart. I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see I have not restrained…I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and faithfulness from the great congregation. (Psalm 40:8-10)

Once again, it’s about the work and ‘success’ – meeting goals and objectives, hitting targets – does not, in and of itself, validate the work, the call, the experience or the passion.³

The work is its own raison d’etre.

The experience of the holy, that named as god, dives deep within oneself, one’s culture, welling up, moving in, moving out, attending to a sacred pulsing within and between relationships.

The experience of the sacred is of god, perhaps, moving to heal, nurture and restore struggling relationships - those both large - ‘a light to the nations’ (Isaiah 49:6) – and small – ‘he inclined to me and heard my cry.’ (Psalm40:1b)

The work is varied; it embraces a global vision - ‘a light to the nations’ (Isaiah 49:6) - and a local action and experience -he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure’ (Psalm40:1b-2)

The work involves a holistic perspective and a particular application or response.

And of course, with some imagination, perhaps we can understand that the global and the local are not separate realities but linked in the depths of the soul, in the vision of god, in the socio-political rhythms and choices of culture.

As the well-known saying puts it - ‘Think globally – Act locally’.

Global vision serves wellness and justice only when it is locally enacted with sensitivity to specific needs, concerns and desires.

Or to put it another way, the vision of justice must be global, and the politics of justice must be local.

Any global vision imposed from on high will, of necessity, become decidedly destructive.

Again, as the old saying has it, ‘the devil is in the details’, which is to say, that any imposed grand vision will always provoke response, responses dismissed as devilish, the devilish response of those ‘unfaithful’, ‘unpatriotic’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘unworthy’, ‘uncivil’, yet, more often than not, those bearing the unacknowledged burden of grand visions. Perhaps paradoxically, I am thankful for this as devilish details disturb grand visionaries – thanks be to god!

It seems that if you ignore the work of grace, if you ignore the details, you do it at your own peril.⁴

And, as with all perceptual and experiential events, the content of the work shifts, ever responsive and evolving to changing contexts.

However, while ever evolving, for those wishing some guidance, one can say, that the work is to ask further relevant questions or perhaps, now that I think about it, even irrelevant questions, after all who gets to decide relevancy…

Asking questions such as:

What is going on?

What is emerging?

What is being resisted?

What are the ‘sacred cows’?

What are we invested in?

In the psalmist’s case, the implied and troublesome question was, if I may quote Micah, ‘What does the Lord require?’

The psalmist answers Micah’s implied question:

“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required” (Psalm 40:6)

The implied question in the psalm, in so far as it elicits pushback, reveals vested interests, religious interests, those who, with myopic vision, identify their established rites and rituals as foundational to human endeavours⁵ and political interests who always assume that the maintenance of their own power, authority and wealth must, of necessity, serve the interests of justice.

The psalmist implies a key element for faithful work – never rest content with experience no matter how valuable or moving it is – all experience raises questions – ask the questions!

Never rest content with the experience of grace but rather lift your eyes and extend your vision.⁶

Grounded in grace, always ask questions.

And so, in general, with the previous questions in mind, and with thanks to John Dominic Crossan, we can ask:

What is the content of our faith?

What is the purpose of our church?

What is our worship for?

Who is our god?

In our specific context, we live in a diocese which seems to be curiously afraid, doubtful, about the value of small, smaller though we all be in the future.⁷

Is it possible that we are being asked to question this and, by the vibrancy of our common life, the difference of our ways to promote a vitality, viability and sustainability of communities such as ours, a vitality, viability and sustainability  perhaps understood as a contextually required, dare I say, theopoetic alternative?

Within wider contexts, god is worshipped in a manner enamoured with might, strength, and success.

Is it possible that we are asked to question this, having placed before us the choice of exploring what may be going on, what may be stirring within the name of god?

Is it possible that perhaps we’re being invited to explore, to take seriously self emptying from  personal, political, ecclesial, and theological perspectives?

It is possible that, if we attend to quests within questions, we will spur the asking of other questions,

‘What is this community?’, ‘Who are these people?’ and ‘How and why do they do what they do?’

Is it possible that we, on the bottom of an ecclesial pile, are being called, lured to intentionally identify with those on the bottom of most piles?

Curiously, all of these questions are stirring within our need to prepare a parish profile in our endeavour to find the priest that best fits our community.

While the parish council is tasked with this work, they may - I am not part of the process - engage in wider conversations to discern what may be stirring within our community, how we best respond to spirit’s stirrings…

Such work suggests impending change, change both welcome and unwelcome, and such change may stir concerns, anxieties, possibly fears, to which I say, honour your feelings and concerns by addressing them. Not to do so, perhaps, may usurp haunting possibilities within community.

To those who may see these concerns or fears as resistance, as push back, you may be right, but, take care in response; to shut them down, to patronize, to treat those who fear or resist as other, is to run the risk of re-establishing the status quo, to possibly but rearrange ‘the deck chairs on the Titanic’…

In the end, never rest content with experience no matter how valuable or moving it is – all experience poses questions – so ask the questions!

 ¹ Failure is not an either/or concept, failure and success are part of the same process! Within our culture, this is linguistically hinted at in such maxims as, ‘trial and error’ or ‘ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration’. If you are still unconvinced read Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford.

 ² Truth to tell, the text cannot absolutely say what being a light may mean as context determines the specificity of response.

 ³ To be clear, if success does not necessarily validate the work neither does failure necessarily invalidate it. Of course, neither success or failure removes the need for ongoing critical analysis or inquiry.

 An aside: From an imaginative perspective, we must realize the fundamental unity of the global and the local, the macro and the micro, the cosmic and the quantum realities. Cosmically understood, the more you move out into the cosmos the more you move within the quantum world. The cosmic world and the quantum world are but different points of the same movement.

 ⁵ A benign, although twisted expression of this lies behind the comment that priests only work on Sunday; a more insidious example lies in the First Nation experience of Residential schools in which the religious establishment saw it as their responsibility – their ‘work’ – to ‘correct’ the inferior ‘Indian’, stripping them of language, family, culture and spiritual traditions.

 ⁶ If you rest content with any faithful experience you run the risk of betraying the experience. In the psalmist’s case the experience of grace was honoured by the implied prophetic question – ‘What does the Lord require?’ Consequently, the presence of other’s ‘push back’ may be a sign of faithfulness – the comfort of popularity may signal that something is missing or silenced.

 ⁷ See the cover story of the Anglican Journal, The Anglican Church of Canada, January 2020.