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 2nd Epiphany 4, 2020     John Marsh

Micah 6:1-10; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Truth to tell, my life has never quite lived up to the clarity, the certainty of ideological formulas or sweeping theological visions, where the path is always clear, the goal attainable to those fit and faithful. As with many, it seems that I regularly fall short, aspects of my life crumbling into disarray, inviting the judgement of others and most certainly my own. In such circumstances, one is tempted to shore up the walls of the self, to repair the breach, defiantly proclaiming, ‘all is well, all is well’.

However, despite the temptation of employing such defensive constructions, I have repeatedly found myself standing in the gaps between expectation and experience, stretched between visions of virtue and the consequences of one’s choices, living in the tension of opposites. These are times when life’s careful constructions crack, threatening collapse, ones’ dreams but broken stones.

In a story told many times before, I first encountered this metaphor of broken stones many years ago in the experience of others derisive judgements following a divorce. Unprepared for such condemnations, I was equally unprepared for the emotional turmoil it caused me. My sense of self was deeply shaken, and I found myself seeking the solitude of long walks.

Once, while walking along a riverbank, I came across the remains of a stone foundation, the building itself long gone. I was transfixed by this pile of rubble, these broken stones a representation of myself. As I turned to leave, I noticed that something was spray painted on an extant part of the foundation. Looking closely, I saw the following written on the wall:

Form prayers to broken stone. ¹

In that moment, I saw my personal disarray differently, as not the justification of my condemnation but an opportunity of, perhaps, my rebirth.

This was an awakening to inherent tensions within the way, a theopoetic stretching of the self,² perhaps better named as soul, that place where tears surface and tears appear. Within this stretching of the soul, I have come to an ever-deepening awareness of the cross as a mandala of life, the inherent tension of the cross at the heart of the way of Jesus, the way of the cross as standing in the tragic gap between polarities and seeming contradictions, within tensions pulling, threatening to crack us open. ³

To speak of standing in this tragic gap is not to valorize suffering; socially speaking, the pursuit of pain seeks only to punish, demonize and victimize. It is rather to speak openly and honestly of the habits of our hearts, for we habitually avoid the tensions of contradictions and uncertainties. We prefer to believe in a life of controlled construction, of the good, the moral and the upright, of virtue as victory over chaos.

Truth to tell, we (or at least many) prefer the control of the professional to the passions and poetry of the prophet. We prefer work which guarantees grace as opposed to grace inviting us to our work.⁴ We seek to avoid the death tinged tension of not knowing, the confusion of the ‘dark wood’, so, inevitably, usually quickly, we leave behind this ‘cloud of unknowing’, to decide, conclude and construct.⁵ We create systems of preferred destinies, condemning those who fail or oppose, for it is their failure, their opposition, which reinforces our assumptions of the ‘justice’ of our success, the superiority of our way.

Yet, despite our yearnings for control, despite our attempts to build ‘mansions of the moral’, spirit hovers over the deep, chaos colludes with chance, conspires with dreams and desires, that which we dread undermining the foundations of civility and acceptability. Truth to tell, life is not so much constructed as birthed, birthed within the elemental forces of push/pull, birthed from depths rising to heights sweeping deep, birthed within the tension of life risking death in contractions of hope.

The pain and promise of birth are invitations, openings of the heart, the cracking open of the habits of our hearts. The tensions of the gap between pain and promise, failure and fulfilment, confusion and clarity are not terrors to be avoided but the contractions of, perhaps, a ‘soul birthing’. This birthing is reminiscent of the tale of the Hasidic rebbe, who was asked,

“Why does the Torah say to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So, we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

The inherent contradiction, paradox, of the cross of Jesus is, perhaps, the inherent tension of soul birthing, of living unto death, the embrace of chaos blessing life despite death. The inherent tension of ‘soul birthing’ does not dispel fear, it is faith acknowledging fear; it does not dispel confusion but confesses light despite the onset of night; it does not dispel death but proclaims life in the midst of death. This is the foolishness which causes those constructing cathedrals of certainty and citadels of clarity to stumble, but to those seeking life, to those honouring the authentic self – if there is such a thing – those honouring sacred sparks, it is, perhaps, the wisdom, the natality of whatever is stirring within the name of god.

The cross of Jesus is certainly a paradoxical contradiction. It is an instrument of a Roman death sentence and as such an explosive existential political confession; it is, as well, a symbol of the power of life birthed from death, a symbolic statement that political murder cannot erase the visage, the face, the memory of Yeshua even though he died. To stand in the tragic gap of the cross is to open to our life stretched out in the paradox of our own living. For those following the way of Yeshua, the cross is a mandala of ‘soul work’, a mandala of our vocation to live fully alive.  

To live fully alive, our awareness cracked open, is to live without collapsing into the polarities of existence, to open allowing the embrace of the confusions and contradictions of love, love human and holy, the one birthed of the other. Such is the vision of the Sufi mystic poet Rumi:

There’s no love in me without your being,

no breathe without that. I once thought

I could give up this longing, but then,

 I could not continue being human.

To live in the gaps, resisting definition, is to open to the tension of love, greeting the stranger within, welcoming the stranger without, opening to the healing of both in ways infinitely more than we ask or imagine. To refuse this tension of love, to refuse to be stretched by life’s contradictions, to refuse to stand in the tragic gap of the cross, is to plot destruction. Again, the wisdom of Rumi:

If you are here unfaithfully with us,

you’re causing terrible damage.

If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,

you’re helping people you don’t know

and have never seen.

The cross of Jesus is, if response is risked, perhaps a live encounter with love, an encounter with life within death demanding justice, not an inert collision with dogma. Our vocation, as followers of the cross, is not the professional proclamation of convenient definition, but the work of the prophet’s path, birthed of the tension between what is and isn’t. Our work is not faith in the formulaic, rather, poetically speaking, it trusts in the emergent work of the collective soul of our souls.

Soul work is the embrace of the cross as a mandala of grace, of life lived as a transformative praxis within the tragic gap between hope and horror. The cross is a mandala of a prayerful praxis within life’s tensions in which hearts, cracked open, risk, if even only occasionally, the embrace of those with broken hearts. Such is the mission of blessing, and, in turn, the grace of being blessed. Such is the birthplace of the collective vocation of our soul to live fully alive in:

Blessing the poor despite the attraction of wealth;

Blessing those who mourn despite life’s tears and tears;

Blessing the meek despite the terrors of the arrogant;

Blessing those who hunger despite the sated satisfaction of the status quo;

Blessing the merciful despite their dismissal as fools;

Blessing the pure of heart despite their denigration as bleeding hearts;

Blessing peacemakers despite the allure and promises of violence;

Blessing those persecuted despite the accuser’s threats;

This is risking love stretched between the contradictions of life and death.

This is living as a community of the cross.

This is certainly foolishness, a stumbling block to many, but to those seeking life, those being stretched in the tragic gap of the cross, it is, perhaps, the wisdom, the birthing of the human face of god.

And so, rejoice and be glad,

singing in full voice:

All shall be well…

 ¹ After seeing this, I discovered that this was a line from T.S. Elliot’s poem, The Hollow Men.

 ² Briefly put, theopoetics is a backing away from the lure of the strong language of theology, recognizing that our ‘word’ about god is decidedly weaker, more uncertain, less a description, more of a poem yet more than poetry and verse; theopoetics is a more proper form of divine discourse. It is to say that language concerning that which we name as god, those matters of spirit is discerned in the form of stories and fables, sayings and parables, greetings and farewells. As John Caputo says in Cross and Cosmos: A Theology of Difficult Glory, “Theopoetics is the hermeneutics of the birth of god.” p.110-111.  

 ³ Briefly put, a mandala is a geometric shape, shapes within shapes, a configuration of symbols expressing god, the gods, the cosmos, life. The cross as a mandala is but one way of approaching the mystery of the cross, its’ paradox.

 ⁴ In speaking of these distinctions, it is not my intention to set up a binary, it is not this or that. We live in the midst, midway, leaning one way, lured to another, within a milieu in which we live, move and have our being. Moving, lured, always needing to decide, to discern. The question is, ‘what lures us?’.

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.’ The ‘cloud of unknowing’ is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work suggests that the way to know god is to abandon consideration of god's particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one's mind and ego to the realm of "unknowing", at which point one may, perhaps, begin to glimpse the nature of god.