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

October 25th Pentecost 21, 2020                      John Marsh

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

If you were to suppose, within a family of businesspeople, businesspeople with a certain sport’s orientation, that one different must be something of an outcast, you would be wrong, at least if the family was my family. That I was different is beyond doubt: politically left leaning in a family of conservatives, one inclined to learning, one philosophically, spiritually interested in matters other than business, one attending to those other. That I was a priest marked me as different yet not one without honour. Within my parent’s mindset, tapping into deep cultural sensibilities, I completed the whole, the purveyor of prayers and blessing to the wider family system, rounding out the family. I was, in their eyes, separate and equal not an outcast but within the same caste.

My role was clear – I was to be one religious, ‘The Reverend’, the Anglican Minister, one exercising leadership within the Church, within the parish, attending to the programmatic concerns of the institution, perhaps rising upwards within what was tacitly understood as the best – The Anglican Church.

If this was my role, I frequently went off script – interested in religious systems other than Anglican, disliking titles, often critical of institutional systems, one more mystical than pragmatic, more missional than conventional, one not wearing the garb literally and figuratively. And so, within the family, my role was rethought – I could become ‘The Rev. Dr.’. Yet, I turned my back on completing the doctorate, deciding that I did not need the title, the degree, I could do the work myself.

Truth to tell, in going off script you run the risk of being demoted, reduced to a minor role perhaps being written out. I was, in many ways, an outlier, reinterpreting, re/visioning my role, much to my parent’s consternation. As my mother once said to me, “John you could be a bishop if you just kept your mouth shut.”

Truth be told, I was never written out by my family, the role was rewritten, developing allowances with but a few personal hopes, perhaps wearing clericals while praying with my father…


Frank McCourt writes in his memoir, Angela’s Ashes:

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bronchial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles , wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it, sizzling on the chest.

From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies  and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odour of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week’s wages.

The rain drove us into church – our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers, and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.¹

Truth to tell, as I reflect, piety, often quite easily, pushes in perhaps overwhelming, submerging, any work calling, stirring within the exigencies of life…

And yet, perhaps love, justice, and compassion lures still…


A personal memory:

It was not that I sought it out, not that I cared except, perhaps, for a certain personal sense of satisfaction, a sense cherished quietly within. Truth be told, in elementary school I never raised my hand to answer questions, especially when I knew the answer, answering quietly within, usually correctly, was satisfaction enough. However, it seemed that people, my mother especially, cared who won the highest graduating average, one for boys, one for girls – Why the gender divide? This was, after all, over 51 years ago. The announcement was awaited with expectation. On the last day, it was announced – Ingrid Terry won the girls with her twin sister Esther coming second, .5% behind. That one of the Terry girls would win was expected, the only drama was which one. The boy’s winner was announced next – Tim Wheeler. Tim was a classmate of mine – we called him Billy Duke – and we all congratulated him, he was surprised and excited. On the way home, as the congratulations continued, I asked Tim what his average was. He told me. To my surprise, it was substantially lower than mine. At least, according to grades, I knew I had won and even better, no one knew but myself.

When I arrived home, my mother was bursting to ask who had won. “Tim Wheeler”, I said. My mother was disappointed, I went about being twelve looking forward to the summer break. A little later, while rummaging around in the fridge for something to eat, my mother commented that Tim must have been pleased with winning. “Yeah, he was. He’s excited to tell his parents.” And then, the mistake was made. “It was odd though; I got a higher grade than Tim but I’m happy for him.” My mother was less than happy demanding to hear what his average was; I was mortified realizing that I had made a mistake. My embarrassment grew as she grabbed the phone to call the school principal.

A mix-up had apparently occurred. Tim was informed that he did not win, and I received the certificate, my name put on the plaque in the school hallway. I could not shake and still cannot shake the image of Tim, after his excitement, having to tell his parents about the ‘mix-up’. Much to my embarrassment, when my daughters went to the school some twenty seven years later, they pointed out the plaque.

A few years ago, when I was back in London, I discovered the school was torn down. I pray the plaque was discarded with rest of the debris. And finally, honesty compels me to say, that either of the Terry twins would have beaten me, although, with my maturity of years, I am willing to say, not by much as there was but one percentage point between the three of us.

Truth to tell, life is not about a plaque, the recognition – it’s simply about the work, in this case, the learning…


A parable, a story, a tale of a dream²…

Once in the time of dreams, there loomed a large, magnificent cathedral. Walking inside, a young man was met by an elder, a guide of sorts, who welcomed the young man and escorted him into the nave. As soon as they entered it was obvious that this was no ordinary cathedral – the nave was a large, simple and open space lit by candles and gentle coloured light streaming in through the stained glass rose window above the high altar. Walking around this space, scented with the sweet aroma of incense, the elder drew the young man’s attention to the walls of the cathedral – there from floor to ceiling were niches with statues enrobed with the vestments of various priests and prelates: there were popes and archbishops, cardinals and archdeacons. There were vestments of various degrees of officialdom and here and there, there was a statue of simple priest.

“Pick,” said the elder.

“Pick what?” the young man replied.

“Pick your future. Carefully consider your heart’s desire and choose. Choose and it will be yours.

The young man wondered around attracted by the beautiful vestments – the colours, the fabric and the exquisite artistry of each piece. He considered bishop’s copes and mitres, the beauty of papal vestments and the elegance of the red piped archdeacon’s robes and here and there, he noticed the simplicity of a priest.

Considering the implications and the possibilities of each he asked, “So I can choose my future?”


The young man was silent for a while and, pointing to a niche, he chose.

And it was as it was promised.

What was chosen and why?

Perhaps risking honesty, what would you choose?


As for whether my coming to this community was in vain or not, this community comprised of community’s which went before, I cannot say, not because of the community’s lack but because the work is not done, the call has not yet been adequately answered.

Truth to tell, the call will not, cannot, be answered as the call calls, the response, our response ever luring the work, the work not my work but our work, our work ever laid upon our hearts, I pray tasking our minds.

Quite simply, ‘it’s about the work’ is about what we do within the gathering and, perhaps more importantly, beyond the gathering. It’s concerned with how we live within life not religious life but life.

The work is about how we all live faith, hope and love in the world.

Compassion, while perhaps originating within the encounter with god, that which stirs and lures us, is expressed within the world…

Shalom, while perhaps grounded in the heart and dreams of the holy, is lived within the world…

Justice, while perhaps flowing from sensibilities of spirit luring, the call of the other, is worked out within the complex relationships of the neighbourhood…

In other words, the vision of god is about the work, the work of justice, the work of shalom, the work of compassion!

‘It’s about the work’ is a holistic, not simply an institutional, ecclesial, approach to how we live as followers of

Christ in our world! ³

‘It’s about the work’ is a hermeneutical approach, an interpretive lens, that best honours today’s gospel, which proclaims that the essence of the law, the foundation of the way, is summed up by ‘love god, love your neighbour as yourself’.

The love of god and the love of neighbour is about the work!

Everything hangs on this – all justice, all shalom, all compassion, all vision...

But any work, in fact all work, is never solitary – no part of work is ever entirely solitary or isolated.

Work, our work as followers of Yeshua ben Yosef, is a communal exercise, even if it seems to be done by one.⁴

Work, our work as followers of Jesus, is work which always involves others and will often stretch from one generation to another.

We may get to the mountain top, but we may not get to go to the Promised Land – our work may come to an end, as my work will come to an end, but the work is not done.

As with Moses, so too with Martin Luther King Jr:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now.

I just want to do God's will. And [God’s] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.⁵

It’s about the work – not just of the one but of the many.

I’m retiring but the work calls, calling, calling…

Truth to tell, my retirement is but engaging the clutch, a shifting of gears…

It’s about our work with life, with that which is stirring within the name of god, our work with each other, both within the gathering and beyond.

To sum up in a word, ‘it’s about the work’ is about stewardship, about how we live the totality of our lives – the work of following Yeshua ben Yosef with our hearts, with our minds, with our song, with our prayer, with our money, with our lives, our lives lived in the world.

The gospel is not about piety, it’s about the work – our work!

And, if it’s important, that dream at the beginning was my dream and I chose…

I chose, I choose, to work with such as you.

Break’s over! Time to get back to work…

¹ Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes, (Simon and Schuster, 1999) p.11-12.

 ² This tale is not told to value the religious or the ecclesial over the secular. It is but one story of one dream raising questions of motivations transcending divides.

 ³ ‘It’s about the work’ implicitly challenges the old argument about faith vs works – such a debate is an argument without a difference! If you are talking faith, you are talking work and if you are talking work, you are talking faith.

 ⁴ We so associate the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. We have heard of Rosa Parks; we know of John Lewis. However, truth be told, the movement involved countless people working countless hours. To illustrate, have you heard of Ella Baker? Ella Baker, who was once called, "One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement” is now, and at the time was, largely unknown. In many ways, this was by design; as Ella once said, “You didn't see me on television; you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.” She also said that the "movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement". I agree wholeheartedly with Ella and if you answer my hopes and prayers, you will be a strong people…

 ⁵ From the last speech of Martin Luther King Jr delivered in Memphis Tennessee in support of the Memphis sanitation strike on April 3rd, 1968. The next day Martin was shot and killed.