Last Sunday after Epiphany, 2021 – Sermon

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Epiphany 6, Feb. 14, 2021. Canon Claude Schroeder

Rector’s Report to the Annual General Meeting

Sermon Audio

At a recent video conference, the clergy of the Diocese were asked to share in small groups their response to some questions, including “How have you been affected by the pandemic?” “How has your parish coped during this time?”

I shared that it has been a bit like the magician who attempted the trick of pulling the table cloth out from under the dishes and glasses on the table, without disturbing them. According to the laws of physics, it’s not much of a trick at all, because when you pull the cloth, the dishes stay put on account of what physicists call  “inertia”, which is the property of matter that describes its resistance to any change in its motion.  Only in this case, when the magician yanked the table-cloth, while some of the dishes and glassware, thanks to inertia, remained in place, others landed in broken pieces on the floor, which has required a certain amount of clean up and re-setting of the table.

Grief and lament over things shattered and lost, confusion and bewilderment about what exactly to do and how to respond, and a longing for the restoration of our life together has been a prominent feature of our spiritual life under COVID.  

HOW long wilt thou forget me, O LORD, for ever? /
how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long shall I seek counsel in my soul, and be so vexed in my heart? /
how long shall mine enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13. 1-2)

This has been hard, but important work, to accompany the mainstay of our spiritual life, which is the giving of thanks to God in and for all things (1 Thess. 5.18),  even when God’s provision comes to us, as it often does, in the shape of a Cross. “ On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took bread and gave thanks. ( 1 Cor. 11.23) 

In an article entitled, “Learning Again to Sing in a Foreign Land: The Book of Common Prayer and Domestic Prayer,” Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto argues that the fundamental question posed by the pandemic is not, “What shall we do?” but rather “what is God doing to and for us in the midst of this deadly pandemic?” He suggests that God “is speaking to us in the midst of life’s fragility, reminding us that none of our efforts to avoid the abyss — the dust of nothingness — from which we come and to which we return will in the end succeed. In the end, nations rise and fall, and death will claim us all.”

Now there’s a cheery thought.   And it’s a thought that the Church literally rubs into our faces every year on Ash Wednesday, which is exactly one week from this day that I am writing this report.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” To which we might hopefully reply, 12 months since this whole thing began, “O.K. God. We get the message…”

If Radner is correct in his assessment of what God has been doing to us and for us, as I believe he is, what then are we to do in response?

This is where the second verse from the Church’s Ash Wednesday liturgy comes to the fore. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is followed by, “Turn from your sins and believe the Gospel.”

And what is the Gospel? What is the Good News?

The Good News says that, “Although we are nothing before God, and have no option but to follow Job’s example and “despise ourselves and repent in dust and ashes” before Him (Job 42.6) we are, at the same time, everything to Him, every one of us  mean the world to Him, such that He sent His only begotten Son into the world that He might raise this creature made from dust to eternal life, love and fellowship with Him, and that is something that begins right here and right now.

Radner continues, “What we “do” emerges only from recognizing where God has placed us. In traditional language, in the midst of plagues God questions our lives and calls us to repent. That is, he calls us to turn away from foundations that can be shaken to one that cannot be moved. To rephrase this yet again, we can say that in the midst of plagues God calls us to worship him and renounce the worship of our false gods — the ones that slumber and sleep and cannot help in time of need. In short, worship is at the center of this time, not as a means of comfort (though surely it is that), nor as an instrument of passage to a better time and economy (though it helps there too). We are here to sing the Lord’s song, and nothing else.”

But how are we to sing the Lord’s song, how are we to worship Him, in this strange land, where we have been confined to our homes, and where gyms, restaurants, and bars are open, but the churches are closed? 

Good question.

“The Book of Common Prayer”, writes Radner, “our primary means of Christian formation, lies ready as a gift…It is as much about what we can call Domestic liturgy, as congregational worship….It assumes that the formative power of public worship is inextricably linked to the sanctification of life as lived daily within the domestic space. This truth has been steadily eroded in our era of digital passivity.” 


Digging into our Anglican past, Radner shows us how in 16th and 17th century England, household worship thrived alongside that of the parish, and even in the absence and destruction of the parish.  “The home was, as the English liked to say, a “little commonwealth,” and the family (in St. John Chrysostom’s phrase) a “little church,” strong enough in spirit to carry nations on its shoulders, if not in this world, then in and into the next.”

Well, as you can probably guess by now, Radner’s analysis and description very much informed my own approach to the pastoral work of calling and leading you in the worship of God in the midst of COVID lockdown.  Early on I made the decision not to go “on-line”, but rather to send out The Order of Service for Morning Prayer with hymns and sermon to you electronically and on paper as needed, in order that you and your household might take ownership of the public worship of the Church, unpack the gift that is The Book of Common Prayer, exercise your royal priesthood (1 Peter 2.9) and share in the work of carrying the nations on our shoulders in this world and into the next. This notion that “in-person worship” was somehow cancelled under COVID is clearly a misnomer. At St. Mary’s, our worship moved from the parish to the home. 

So how has that worked for you? 

I received two e mails this week. A former parishioner from Saskatoon wrote, “Just finished worshiping with St. Mary’s. It was refreshing. Appreciated the dignity, beauty and simplicity of Morning Prayer. Enjoyed the literal “Hymns Ancient and Modern” as well. Henry’s sermon was timely.”  And a family member of a parishioner wrote from British Columbia, “The traditional versions of the hymns really suit the quiet and contemplative act of reading a church service.” I share this by way of encouragement to you all that though we have been physically distanced from one another, we have not been alone and have had many companions in  Common Prayer and our fellowship in the Holy Spirit.

So, what have been some highlights for us this year?

It seems like an eternity now since it took place, but in January of last year St. Mary’s hosted its first ever Winter Ceilidh, in which we served up over 100 chili dinners, accompanied by glass of wine and local craft beer, witnessed “the piping of the haggis”, and enjoyed an evening of fiddling, song, and dance. Besides raising $2,000 for our Refugee Fund, we had such fun, and I look forward to the day when we can have more such kitchen parties where young and old, men and women, boys and girls gather together for a meal, song and dance and experience the shared joy of being alive.

April saw the launch of St. Mary’s partnership with Ploughing for People charity in which Nat, Henry, and myself worked the roto-tillers at the Regina Community Garden, also raising funds for our Refugee Fund. This is a happy and exciting outreach development for us at St. Mary’s that I anticipate will bear all kinds of fruit in the years to come!

In the week leading up to Mother’s Day on May 10th, a crew of parishioners cook up a batch of the Rector’s spaghetti bolognese to deliver to the mother’ of our congregation.

This year we rejoiced with in a number for children born to parish families, Sophia daughter of Ben and Oleksandra, born in March, and then  baptized in November; Dieu, son of Deng and Elizabeth, born in May, and Gunnar, son of Karen and Steve born in November.  We give thanks to God for their safe arrival and give thanks for all those who contributed to the “meal trains” to these homes.

St. Paul compared the work of spiritual formation to “being in the anguish of childbirth.” (Galatians 4.19). At the Sunday service on February 7 we officially “went into labour” when we welcomed Cailin and Derek as candidates (catechumens) for Holy Baptism. The labour was progressing nicely, and we had anticipated celebrating with them the sacrament of their re-birth by “water and the spirit” at Pentecost when COVID hit, causing a cancellation. With the re-opening of St. Mary’s in the fall, we went back into labour, only to have the second planned celebration in Advent cancelled as well. This has been more than a little tiring, but resisting all offers of an epidural, we have continued in our labour, and fully anticipate a celebration this year!

Margaret, one of the many jewels in the crown of our parish family, passed away in October. Margaret, who in her life had heard, believed, and bore witness to the Word of God who is Jesus Christ, by her death became for us a word from God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew. 5.8)

In  Advent we undertook a special delivery of a spiritual “care package” to all parish households that included a gifts of icon cards of “Christ the Almighty” and “Mary the Guide”  from Symeon van Donkelaar and The Conestoga Icon Studio; hand-dipped beeswax candles made by Yvonne in the kitchen at St. Mary’s; colour copies of hand-painted Christmas cards by Emma, Myka, Luci, and Eli,  treats for the celebration of St. Nicholas, a handmade wooden Christmas tree decoration by a friend of the parish, Alex, and liturgical materials for Advent for the domestic church. Parish families also received and enjoyed a visit from St. Nicholas (a.k.a. Len)!

What a blessing then it was to receive and read through the spiritual testimonies Lorna assembled and put together for “The GrapeVine” Newsletter in time for Christmas. This kind of storytelling and faith sharing where we get beyond the small talk is vital for our sense of belonging to a community of faith.

It was certainty a strange experience to be in an empty St. Mary’s on Christmas Eve for a service of lessons and carols on “zoom,” but I understand from many of you what a joy and blessing it was to at least catch a glimpse of  one another and our beautiful church.

St. Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, writes that, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4. 15,16)

There are some people who ministries in our parish have served as ligaments connecting   “muscle to bone” enabling each of us to do our proper work, making for bodily growth, and upbuilding in love. In particular I want to acknowledge and thank:

  1. Our Churchwardens this year, Janice and Beth , for their personal support, guidance, and encouragement, and the many hours spent “behind the scenes” in support of the governance and infrastructure of our parish. Janice took in hand to organize a pastoral care phoning tree to gather in prayer requests, and Beth was my constant liturgical companion.
  2. Our parish secretary Yvonne for her cheerful and tireless attendance to administrative matters in the office, handling correspondence, enquiries, and communication.
  3. Our financial team consisting of:  our book-keeper, Mike, who not only ensured that the bills got paid, and produced financial statements for the Vestry, but also provided invaluable technical support for the weekly distribution of the service  and bulletin via e-mail; our Envelope Secretary, Blair, who not helps us keep track of our financial support of the parish, but also helpfully set up e-transfer to facilitate donations during COVID; and Norma for keeping track of mail in donations and making bank deposits.
  4. Our sexton, Terry for his expert, loving and tender care of our building, and managing ongoing repair and refurbishment projects.
  5. Kate and Sandra for all their work in organizing and heading up the care of the children under COVID.

All of us have been laid low by COVID in different ways, and it has been a draining and exhausting time for us, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I want to conclude with a story from The Second Book of Samuel that speaks a word of grace to those who  for one reason or another have been unable and/or prevented from sharing in the work that has been given to us to do this year. Among David’s band of followers there were 200 men who had been too exhausted to follow him into battle.  After David’s victory, when it came time to divide the spoils, some among those who had gone into battle, argued that those who remained behind, should not receive a share of the spoils. But David declared, “As his part is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his part be that tarrieth by the stuff: they shall part like” (1 Samuel 30:24 KJV).

And so, as we declare at the end of our daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all, evermore.” Amen.