Sermon for Induction of Maggie Helwig as rector, Sunday, February 22 2015, 4:00 pm
Mtr. Andrea Budgey, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
I have looked forward to this day with great eagerness and joy, but to this precise moment with enormous trepidation. The reasons are several. First, of course, there is the momentousness of the occasion itself: the return of Saint Stephen’s to its standing as a parish, with an incumbent and autonomous corporation; it is a day long awaited, hard worked for, (occasionally despaired of), and deserves to be properly and solemnly marked. Then, there’s the matter of timing: it’s customary for the homily at a service of induction to be an introduction, to give the congregation some sense of what to expect from their new priest, but, almost 22 months into Maggie’s ministry here, it would be presumptuous of me to take that approach. On the subject of presumption, I have to say, too, that your incumbent is a truly remarkable preacher, and I have thought many times in the last few weeks that I should simply unearth a sample from my trove of scavenged Helwig homiletic hard-copies, and share that with you, but common sense prevailed. What I would like to do by way of introduction, though, is to pull a couple of fragments from Maggie’s third novel, Girls Fall Down, which has as one of its settings “a church on College… a little red-brick building with a low slanted roof”, a church which hosts a drop-in for homeless and marginalised people, as well as various community and arts programmes, and is, in a modest and slightly chaotic way, a sign of hope in the city’s anxiety. The novel was published in 2008, so this would have been written well before Maggie was even a theological student, but it’s clear that its author has always had a vision of this place as a beacon of God’s love in the world. I know, because, as you might imagine, we’ve talked about it, that the character of Evelyn, the busy, thoughtful, and deeply committed parish priest, with a daughter and a supportive, self-effacing husband, was not intended as any projection of the author’s self into the future, but you can imagine that this little vignette, from near the end of Girls Fall Down, came back to me during Maggie’s first Advent here:
On the surface of the city, above the tunnels and sunken gardens, the temperature has risen just enough for a cold rain to begin falling. Inside a little brick church, the rain is a muffled sound through an opened door, as a woman in a violet robe raises her arms in consecration, the elements transformed. She turns to place a wafer in her daughter’s hands. In the basement, someone is painting NO WAR on an old bedsheet…
Those of you who are here in the weeks to come will see that visual image enacted again, and while I’m pretty sure we won’t, during this particular Lent, have anti-war activists working in the basement, I also know that this parish will continue to welcome people who seek to make the world a more peaceful, more equitable, and more beautiful place, a better and more faithful manifestation of the kingdom of God. It is very right that this priest should be in this place.
My final, and perhaps most significant, reservation about preaching on this occasion lies in the readings which the lectionary has given us for today, the first Sunday of Lent: the end of the story of Noah’s ark, from Genesis, its interpretation as a symbol of baptism by the letter-writer identified as Peter, and then, in Mark’s Gospel, the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of his ministry. It would be so easy to draw facile parallels between the Old Testament narrative of rescue and the recent history of Saint Stephen’s, to speak broadly of the regeneration of parish life after a period of uncertainty and exile, but I don’t think that would be faithful either to the texts themselves or to circumstance. Not, on the one hand, that the past decade hasn’t been a very challenging one for the parish, but if you look back through the history of Saint Stephen’s, you discover that there have been many periods of doubt about the future, many times of tension between the commitment to justice and outreach which is so clearly part of the parish DNA, and the practical constraints of running a building in what has become, over the course of Saint Stephen’s history, the inner city. The delicate negotiation of that balance will probably continue to be part of the life of the parish indefinitely, but it is a negotiation infinitely worthwhile: the maintaining of sacred space, welcoming space, “defenceless space”, as Rowan Williams puts it, porous to the world’s pain and open to all the children of God.
It is on this point that our Epistle today causes me disquiet, and, since disquiet is often the heart of preaching, I want to pause and look at it for a moment. The writer speaks of “former times…when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you…” It’s an interpretation oft-repeated, this use of Noah’s voyage as a figure of baptism, but like many such striking figures, it is meant to arrest our attention, and can’t be strained too far without beginning to deconstruct. Noah and his family were saved, not so much through water as from water, a closed group, sealed in their wooden shelter, while, all around them in the mythic deluge, human and animal life was wiped out. But we, in our baptism, are buried with Christ in his death, as Christ was buried with us in our death, redeeming it and transforming it into the gate of eternal life. And so Jesus came to John to be baptised, to go with us under the water, to be submerged in our humanity so that all might come to him. Not just a tiny group of survivors, not only the chosen few, but also the broken and wounded, the sick and the mad and the despairing, all the fragile children of the world which God so loves. To be a sign of that self-offering love of God is and has been a mission of this parish, and I pray that it will always be.
From the Jordan, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted. Mark’s account is very succinct, and says only “tempted by Satan”, but other Gospels tell us that these temptations were to conformity with the values of the world, values of power and domination, values which Jesus utterly rejected. Having passed through this period of testing, he returns to Galilee to begin the proclamation of the Gospel and the announcement of the kingdom, living out his identity as the beloved Son of God, the identity which was declared by the voice from heaven at his baptism. Identity, testing, and proclamation. This is also, in many ways, the shape of our lives as Christians and, collectively, as church. We begin from an identity as creatures, as beloved parts of a beloved creation, and move deeper into a recognition of ourselves as the Body of Christ, redeemed in our very messiness and fragility by the God who willed to die for us, to go below the surface of the water which is both our life and our death, to touch the stones and silt and clinging weeds of the river-bed, and to burst forth again, scattering us as droplets into the light. Because we are creatures, because we live in time and space and matter, that identity is tested, not once but repeatedly… tested but never withdrawn. And from that place of ebb and flow, of cycle and contingency and transience, we are called to proclaim the enduring love and eternal life of God. Out of Lent we come to Easter.
In closing, I want to return for a moment to our first reading. The great mythic narrative of the flood ends with covenant, with promise, with a sign. If you look at your leaflets, you’ll see that a covenant is what follows immediately after the homily, an exchange of promises between priest and people, complete with signs – not rainbows, but more modest tokens: keys, bread, and other symbols of Maggie’s ministry among us. And while we may chuckle inwardly at the prospect of Maggie being handed the keys she has been using to come and go here for the better part of two years, we need to notice that this time she is receiving them as a sign of our mutual promise. We say here today that we will bring our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and concerns, our gifts and talents bestowed on us by God’s grace, and that we will endeavour, with the help of God, to share together in the ministry of this parish, in the name of Christ, with the empowering of the Holy Spirit. That covenant binds us, for a time (and at the discretion of the Bishop, of course) in a relationship whose primary goal is to be the love of God in the world around us. And we remember that that love is the great promise on which all our promises rest.