At St. Margaret's we have now begun our Fall Stewardship Initiative. As part of this initiative, each week we ask members of our two congregations to share what they appreciate about St. Margaret's and what they enjoy about Christian generosity. The following short talk was given by David Geoffrey Smith at our 9.00 service on Sunday November 12th.
Three things I appreciate about St. Margaret’s at 9am on a Sunday morning
1. The simplicity of the service.
When I was younger, I was a singer, and sang in the choir of a big Anglican church in downtown Victoria BC. Every Sunday, the full Anglican liturgy was enacted with significant leadership provided by the choir through hymns, canticles, sung responses etc. I appreciated all this very much at the time, and learned a lot from it. Liturgy, after all, is meant to provide a form of teaching for the congregation.
Later, I was drawn to the contemplative movements in Christian history and even at one point seriously considered becoming a Benedictine monk, in the Trappist tradition committed to a life of silence. This inclination has remained with me all my adult life - a love of silence and its correlative, simplicity. There is something important about stripping things down to absolute essentials, and not being obsessed with incidentals. This is what the 9:00am service at St. Margaret’s provides for me; something very basic and focused on essentials.
2. The Eucharist.
This practice is not unique to St. Margaret’s, of course. It is perhaps the most ancient of all Christian sacraments, along with baptism, and every Christian tradition has its version of the Eucharist, or more commonly, the Communion service. What gives the Eucharist (lit. “Thanksgiving”) its singular importance is the sacramental action of conjoining heaven and earth, time and eternity, life present (including life past living in the present as memory) and future. To take the bread and wine is to receive a foretaste of eternal life, right now, right here. In the bread we are reminded of God’s generosity in providing for our material needs. The wine speaks of warmth and happiness but perhaps most importantly of sacrifice, indeed blood sacrifice. It is a reminder not to become too comfortable in our happiness because participating in the life of eternity on this side of the veil comes at great cost. It demands something of us that is actually counterintuitive: We have to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. More on this point later.
More often than not, when we come to church, in our own minds it is for our own benefit. We want to be nurtured in faith for the coming week, through the preaching of the Word, through the sacraments, through prayers and fellowship. What is often forgotten is the fact that simply in coming to church we are publicly bearing witness to something. Our private yearnings are being made public, perhaps quite beside the point of any self-awareness about it. The secret is out, not just that I am a person of faith, a person hungry for faith, but I notice that you are too, and, in a deep irony, such noticing in turn strengthens my own faith. I am stronger because of you and I notice your presence and miss it in your absence. So thank you, each one, for simply being here today. You inspire me, and I am grateful.
A meditation on Christian generosity.
One of my favorite stories in the gospels tells of a woman of “ill repute” who interrupts Jesus while he is having dinner with some good law-abiding fellow Jews. Just by the interruption alone, the woman smashes almost every dining protocol precious to law abiding citizens. A woman known for grievous ‘sins’, a profoundly impure woman by Jewish standards of the day, has dared to interrupt a group of scrupulous men enjoying their supper and having serious conversation. What is even worse, she is crying and washing Jesus’s feet with her tears, followed by drying his feet with her hair! Imagine this. How crazy! Naturally, everyone is outraged. Jesus however says something to his fellow guests that I have never forgotten since first reading it over fifty years ago: “Her love is great because she has been forgiven much.”
In a startling way, this story clarifies the roots of love as grounded in mercy and forgiveness. It is the experience of profound forgiveness that in turn lead to acts of devotion, generosity and forms of self-giving that are unprecedented, unorthodox yet also incidentally woven into the fabric of everyday life. If we want to be generous, not superficially, or in a philanthropic sense, but in a manner at the heart of our own humanness, we must first experience the mercy and forgiveness of God in the core of our being. Forgiveness of what? Forgiveness of our deepest sin, which is nothing less than missing the point of life, so defined by the Greek word for sin, hamartia.
Well, what is the point of life? I like the statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism written by a group of Scottish and English theologians in 1647. The purpose of human life is “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Here we see the secret of the good life, the life of true enjoyment, life liberated from the strangulations of ego-centrism, life focused on something Other than ourselves, indeed focused on the very Author of life, forever calling us out of ourselves into a life of fellowship.
Forgiveness implies repentance, which means not so much engaging in what Baron von Hugel once called “a spiritual flea hunt”, like remorse over that extra lump of sugar we might put in our tea. Instead repentance means giving up the greatest human sin of all, the delusion of an ego-driven life, instead turning to a life disciplined and enriched by relationships, and especially our relationship to God our creator. Basically, we are creatures, both great and small. To be forgiven is to be restored to the natural created order of things, to find our true selves, and to become fully human as God intended. Then, generosity bursts forth as an act of profound gratitude for the generosity of our eternal and living God.