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


January 26th Epiphany 3, 2020     John Marsh

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23


A few years ago, I was invited to preach in another church. I chose to introduce the homily in the following manner:

“I speak to you in the name of all that is most human.”

I do not usually make such introductory comments, but it was the practice of this community and this introduction dramatized fundamental points that I wanted to make in the homily.¹

Afterwards, regarding this introduction, the comment was made, “You should know that this is a church not a community center, we are concerned with God here, not with people.”  

This left me wondering…

What has become of god, the name of god?

How have we become so fragmented in our manner of living?

How has our humanity become so divided, so separated from the sacred, from god pervading all of life?

Is it any wonder, given such alienation, such separation, that we have spent so much time inflicting wounds as opposed to healing our wounded selves or tending to the toxicity of our time?

Is it surprising, that we have traded transformation for information?

To be fair, such alienation is not unique to that parish or our ecclesial institutions - it is endemic to our culture. We are so alienated from ‘truths’ within the depths of our communities and ourselves, that we readily accept, if not celebrate, the spiritualties, the politics of division, all the while succumbing to a spirit of fear and suspicion.²

I have a hunch that we seek division, at least in part, because demonizing others diverts our attention while feeding our egos. It is sad to admit that we often seem to prefer the ease of condemnation to the work of consciousness and creation. We seek diversions to avoid our own pain and, paradoxically, our own promise, perhaps echoing the song lyric, ‘Here we are now, entertain us!’.³

I have a hunch, that ours is a culture traumatized by ‘soul sickness’. We have little awareness of our own soul, even less awareness of our collective soul and, perhaps not surprisingly, we are poorly equipped, personally and collectively, to do ‘soul work’. An example of our soul sickness is our continuing belief that attending to the soul is a privatised, interior journey practiced by spiritual dilatants with little or no connection to the ‘real world’.

However, authentic soul work knows no such divisions, no such categories which seek to divide and conquer. Attending to the soul is a social act, not an inherently selfish preoccupation. The crisis of the common good, the call of the undivided life, is an invitation to attend to the collective soul of our own souls, to attend to the common good, to open to the depths, to the ‘ground of all being’ (to play with a phrase, with profound thanks to Paul Tillich⁴). And the good news is that, despite of our divided selves, our lack of awareness, deep truths, spectral calls, invite, interrupt, intrude upon, the relentless defence of the status quo by the powers and principalities.

But let’s pause, and ask, ‘What is the soul?’

To begin, the soul is a poetic expression not a literal description, more a matter of insistence than existence.

Some have described it as a wild animal ever present, alert, tracking us in all our movements, yet elusive, skittering away from all direct confrontations. As the poet, Mary Oliver says of the soul, ‘it comes and goes/like the wind over the water’. The soul is a wild place, a place of meandering creeks following the topography of its own logic, supporting myriad forms of life, seen and unseen; it is hillocks of wild grasses and knurled old trees defying utility yet inviting climbing.

Soul work is to attend, being disturbed, troubled, haunted by god, perhaps, to encounter wild things, to enter wild places, wild places of pain and promise in search of a human face, our face, both lithe and lined. It is the embrace of our own heart, both hungry and whole.

Soul work is to walk through the ‘dark wood’ of unnamed longing, to approach the valley of the shadow of death, where one is confronted by unknowable consequences of fear.⁵

Soul work is to walk on with eyes wide open despite threat of loss.  It is to pay attention to truths within, without, despite the siren call of avoidance. It is a wild act of trusting, perhaps, a spectral presence, the wisdom of a divine spark, the holy, spirit within, of a more authentic self, trusting that perhaps something may be going on within the name of god.

So, ‘Why this talk of the soul?’

Today’s lections speak of hope defying hopelessness, of yearnings for life, of calls, of the haunting presence of god, while naming the wounds of divisiveness. This is the language of deep truths stirring within our souls. Scripture in general and the gospel particularly, is more than text, perhaps more a gestalt of the soul in which varieties of vocation can be discerned - yours, mine and ours.

 ¹ My desire in the homily was not to scuttle god but to re-describe god, to place ‘god’, humanity, the world in such a way as to sidestep, to avoid the war of two worlds initiated by Plato and Augustine, to avoid setting up absolute distinctions between heaven and earth. Truth to tell, we are already heavenly bodies, the earth, all life, everybody, everything being composed of stellar dust.

 ² The truth religion has is more a matter of transformation than information. The name of god is not concerned with matters of facts, as it is in modernity, rather it is discerned in the form of stories and fables, sayings and parables, greetings and farewells. It is not verified but witnessed. ‘The name of god is the name of a deed, not of an entity…something to be done, not a proposition to be debated.’ See John Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, (Indiana University Press,2013) p. 178-9.

 ³ From the Nirvana song, ‘Teenage Suicide’.

 ⁴ The concept of god as ‘the ground of all being’, while an invaluable insight, is perhaps too coloured by the tone of ‘being’, the distractions of hyper-being. Perhaps, it is best to consider ‘the groundless, ground of all being’, not the existence of super-being but, a weaker, less overwhelming, less problematic consideration of the insistence, the spectral lure, the draw of that which we have named as god. As John Caputo says, ‘god does not exist, god insists.’ The existence of god is our calling.                                                                                                                    

 ⁵ The ‘dark wood’ is a reference to the opening line of Dante’s Inferno, ‘In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.’