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 5, 2020                    John Marsh

Isaiah 58:1-9a(9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9(10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12(13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

A mandala of the cross

We begin, perhaps playing with poetic excess, continuing on from where we ended last week:

All shall be well

and all shall be well

and all manner of things shall be well.

(During the chant long strips of red silk are placed in a cruciform pattern in the center of the room over the altar)


I may be alone but, as we sing the chant ‘All shall be well’, I remain perturbed by a question -How do we know?’

The question is real; it is valid, probing the mists of tomorrow, searching ‘the edge of darkness’ as we yearn to know…

But as much as we probe, pondering possibilities, ultimately, we just don’t know. As the poet Mary Oliver says,

What is so utterly invisible as tomorrow?

Not love, not the wind…

 Not anything.¹

And yet, perhaps paradoxically, this does not bring about a collapse into futility. The inability to know suggests, perhaps, a way to go, the yearning to know suggests paths to follow...

If we open to the embrace of the present moment whatever it contains - yearnings, fears, hopes, ‘the hungers of our heart’ - we open to the way of ‘life unfurling.’ We cannot, do not know but on we can go ‘splashing over the edge of darkness… hearts on fire.’² In the midst of unknowing, life suggests, invites an opening ‘to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, this cottage of darkness?’³

In other words, we live by the ‘grace of embrace’ – we cannot know outcomes, yet we live into them. There is no other way. In the book The Promise of Paradox, Parker Palmer, quotes a profound truth from an anonymous source:

You don’t think your way into a new kind of living – you live your way into a new kind of thinking!

This is life lived opening to the embrace of the moment, attentive to the soundings of the soul. Again, as Mary Oliver says,

I would say that only what the soul is supposed to be

could send us forth

with such cheer…

against the hard possibility of stoppage

Such soulful living suggests the mandala of the cross.

(open arms)

Perhaps in the embrace of life’s complexities, uncertainties and contradictions, we open to life fully alive risking ‘the hard possibility of stoppage’.

Perhaps in the embrace of unknowing, we open to awareness, a learned ignorance to quote Nicholas of Cusa…

Perhaps in the embrace of the deep vagaries of creation and ourselves, we open to the depths of that named as god.

Perhaps in the darkness of night even the smallest light can be a light unto the world.

Of course, it goes without saying that such openness, such an embrace, is not a given – we can say no to this ‘promise of paradox’ and, as many do, seek to impose order and control, regulating and structuring life in such ways as to reduce it to the sterilizing simplifications of the fanatic or obfuscations of the bureaucratic – religious or otherwise – ‘the wisdom of this age’ as Paul tersely refers to it.

But the grace of embrace – if we risk response - perhaps opens to wisdom, secret and hidden, astir within creation, a divine wisdom at odds with endless ages of dominance driving destiny; wisdom at odds with rulers regulating rituals of righteousness; wisdom at odds with the reduction of wonder to worth and sacraments to salary. This is, perhaps, the divine wisdom of the Christ crucified – decidedly not the wizened wisdom of weighing a life’s’ value to satisfy sin’s cost but the depths of divinity, that which we name as god, unfolding within life lived fully despite death’s threats.

This is the wisdom taught by spirit, the wisdom of the paradoxical dance of death and resurrection in which the first are last and the last first; where in seeking to save ones life you lose it; and where the weak and foolish are chosen of the holy to overcome the strong and wise.

This is good news within a rhythm of reversals, ways emerging, unfurling from the chrysalis of binding and unbinding, of building up and tearing down. Within this tension, the way of Jesus emerges, calling us to living beyond defending definitions. As the Jesuit William Johnston said in Christian Zen,

It could be argued that Christianity is one tremendous koan that makes the mind boggle and gasp in astonishment; and faith is the breakthrough into that deep realm of the soul which accepts paradox…with humility.

Now with a chutzpah born of humility, may I suggest that we are, perhaps, at risk of such faith – that we are a parish of paradox, a community of stretched in contradictions:

Small yet perhaps significant,

Poor yet resourceful, resourcefully poor,

A success, our failures notwithstanding,

Our weakness, our strength.

At risk yet risking,

Confused, conflicted yet confessing,

Loving yet losing it,

Welcoming yet wary.

As a communal contradiction, we are, perhaps, a communal koan. We know something of spirit’s abundance within despite scarcity. We are, perhaps, an embodiment of Paul’s ecclesial vision. In short, we are, so I am hoping, a community of the cross, stretched and living in tension yet perhaps expressing spirit’s gifts. There is no understanding of us unless it is to understand us as living in the chaotic, promising, somewhat mad, paradoxical tension of the already/not yet in which we are continually surprised yet never sure of what will be.

This is the enlivening ‘promise of paradox’, the ‘grace of embrace’ in which we seek to embody and express Christ alive in us while embracing the inadequacy, the incompleteness, the failures of our response. This is faith living life in full knowledge of ‘the hard possibility of stoppage’; this is faith risking living life as ‘light breaking forth like the dawn’.

We are a communal koan – an incongruous, silly, sacred communal conundrum, an impossible paradox.⁶

This is our story. This is our identity, our voice, our soul, our saltiness if you will, and if we lose it, if we refuse it, we are ‘no longer good for anything’. If we embrace the truth of the paradox of our own path, our ‘identity in contradiction’, if we are worth our salt then ours will perhaps be a story of ‘the light of the world’, small though we may be, a light which cannot be hidden.

To be worth our salt is to embrace the sacredness of our story – our personal stories lived within communal stories within other stories within sacred story, always different, sometimes in tension, sometimes conflicted, yet always interconnected. Our story is not so much a moralistic tale, a static life lesson for others to follow as it is an expression of the open-ended art of storytelling. A story about story as told by Martin Buber illustrates:

A story must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself…My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how [his teacher] used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he began to hop and dance to show how the master had done it. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s how to tell a story.

Ours is a story, or as I said, a story within stories demanding to be told; our story demands not empty imitation but the embodiment of restless passions dangerously inviting the work of the soul. Ours is a story demanding to be told by us to us, by us to others, ‘told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself’; for we are a communal parable, a communal koan of spirit’s art embodying the discipline of living into ‘life unfurling’.

And to you, to us, this communal koan is entrusted, the work of this communal parable – it’s about the work.

 ¹ From the poem Walking to Oak-Head Pond by Mary Oliver

 ² Ibid

 ³ From the poem When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

 ⁴ Mary Oliver, Walking to Oak-Head Pond

 ⁵ A Koan is a ‘word tool’ used by some teachers of Zen Buddhism to guide or sometimes goad students along the path to enlightenment. They are purposefully incongruous, silly questions sounding much like, as some Westerners have said, ‘transcendental horseplay’. Students are to wrestle with a koan until they ‘get it’, whatever getting it means. A well-known example of a koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  A Christian koan may be the resurrection, the cross or “When I am weak, I am strong”! As for St. Mary Magdalene, one could ask, “How do you live the immensity of small?”

 ⁶ Community, in so far as it is authentic – if there is such a thing - is less a gathering of those identifying what is possible, prioritizing and then acting as it is a gathering of those seized by, inquiring of, an art, the art of making the impossible possible. It is for this reason that community is always political as politics, as it serves justice and communal well being (i.e. rises above partisan politics), is the intentional practice of this art.

 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters (New York: Schoken Books, 1974) pp. v-vi