‘Be glad and rejoice in what I am creating’ Isaiah 65: 18
From a sermon preached by the Rev’d William Roberts,
Incoming Priest-in-Charge, St Mark’s NOTL, Pentecost 26, Nov 13, 2016
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O God, our strength our song, Amen
Dear people of St. Mark’s – thank you so much for the warm welcome I have already deeply felt, especially from your wardens Carol and Chris, Gillian in the office, Michael the music man and Father Bruce your Interim Priest. From so many I have felt open doors, open hearts and open minds. I look forward to getting to know many of you in preparation for January 1, 2017.
I know you must have many questions and hope the letter I sent answers some of them, together with conversations after the service today and in meetings in the weeks and months ahead. The letter said how humble and excited I feel to be appointed to work and come among you. But today you should also know this morning that I am feeling a little nervous.
Firstly, although I have been to NOTL several times back in the 70s and 80s, to come now and see the growing excellence of theatre, music and culture, all the wineries, the history, and the incredible calibre and character of the people here – it’s all a little intimidating. You no doubt put your pants on one leg at a time, but it’s quite a stage here and I do not want to break a leg.
Secondly, I am nervous for this my ‘maiden sermon’ to come here to this border town on the Sunday after the US elections just across the river and not far from the American Rust Belt. I know that with the results of the Presidential earthquake and the aftershocks, I am not the only one a little nervous about what is going on just across the Niagara River.
And thirdly, the readings for today are not at all very inspiring. We hear Jesus in Luke’s Gospel warn about the imminent destruction of the temple accompanied by social and religious earthquakes and other dreadful apocalyptic portents. Paul’s letter berates the Thessalonians about how lazy they are “living in idleness, mere busybodies and not doing any work.”
Thankfully my nervousness subsided a bit feeling some comfort and constellation in the words of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 65. Because Isaiah, from a place of exile and oppression, the strange land over in Babylon where is captive, even there he has a great vision for the future. ‘The Lord is about to create a new heaven and a new earth’ he says. “Be glad and rejoice in what I am creating”. And then especially appropriate for Niagara-on-the-Lake, verse 21 we read “Thou shalt built houses and in live in them, thou shalt plant vineyards and eat its fruit”!
It is comforting and also inspiring because here is Isaiah, the prophet of promise as we will see in Advent, talking about creation in the present tense. Many of us Christians seem to think that creation is all in the Genesis past, that God created everything in a Big Creative Bang 13 or so billion years ago and that was it. But for Isaiah 2,700 years ago, and for me and for us today, we are being called to rejoice in what is being created now and into the future.
Plus it is not just God who is creating. We are created in the image of God, male and female, to carry on the creativity of God’s creative purposes. And this is good.
But where does creativity come from anyway?
For me I think of the many times I have been with friends of the Squamish and LIl’wat First Nations on the BC Coast, and other indigenous communities and with Anglican bishop Mark McDonald. I hear them say, as they begin their times together, ‘we thank the Creator for this day, we thank the Creator for the trees, we thank the Creator for the salmon’. This sparks in my imagination the image of God as creator – and less of all of the Greek metaphysics of a Triune God that so often catch us up in irrelevance.
We think of creative geniuses like Einstein. A shoutout out to my soon to be son-in-law Adam, marrying not Eve but my daughter Jessica. As I met with them in their Toronto home a couple of weeks ago Adam was wearing a T Shirt with a quote from Einstein that read “Creativity is just intelligence having fun’. Isn’t that great? I think I’ll get us all that T Shirt!
And when I counsel couples preparing for marriage, especially older couples or same-sex couples, I tell them that in my view the purpose of the marriage covenant, is not necessarily to procreate as much as it is to co-create! It is for two people committed in love to create something new together, doing more than they can ask or imagine on their own.
And as creative Christians we can go even deeper, learning from the Jewish tradition that creativity comes out of chaos. For us, creative light and life comes out of dark loss even death. For us the greatest expression of creativity is Easter and becoming in Christ a new creation.
I have always loved the poetry and physics of a pearl. You know, where an oyster takes in some dirty salty grit from the ocean floor and with a mysterious pressure shapes a beautiful round pearl of great price. Jesus even says that the kingdom of God is like such a pearl. I dare say that Leonard Cohen’s pearls of wisdom in music comes from such grittiness.
In many ways this past year 2016 for me, and I think for some ways for you at St. Mark’s, has been a pretty gritty year – in fact at times not so very pretty. It has been a kind of a sabbatical year for me, and with Bruce, an interim year for you. It is a time to step back, to pause and reflect on where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.
Although our common life in the church and in the world at the end of 2016 is not exactly a string of pearls, I have this year encountered some gritty creativity. I am here now to thank God, and am eager to move on as co-creators of a new future with you.
Last November I witnessed amazing creativity of young entrepreneurs in Gaza imprisoned by destruction and despair – and yet building a website for Arab humor. It is unbelievable. Or this winter with young students at Harvard Divinity school who struggle to know about the Christian relevance today but are researching creative new ways in which millennial’s and others gather for meaning and purpose in their lives. I was with homeless people at the Cathedral in Boston for the Easter Vigil and heard my first sermon preached by a transsexual. With Pope Francis, First Nations and people all over the world I marvelled at the gifts of nature thanking God the Creator for the environment given into our care. This week coming I am singing a duet with my brother-in-law who has Parkinson’s – a song we will sing together for my sister on her 70th birthday and before her hip replacement Friday.
Now after this reflective, sabbatical, interim, gritty year I am more than ready, and I hope you are, to begin ministry together with the words of Isaiah leading the way – let us rejoice and be glad with God as we are co-creating in love anew.
This creativity is already around us – look at these musical instruments and the talents of Michael, the gift of the choir and all those who make our hearts sitting and our spirits soar, perhaps not Haydn’s Creation Mass but other musical offerings and compositions.
Look at the beauty of the stained-glass windows… the visual and performing arts that delight our senses and the divine sparks within. We are surrounded by colour of the autumn leaves in the gardens of soil bringing forth flowers and fruits and vineyards – just glorious! The books here published books and the creative ways we have to communicate, the fabrics we weave, silk worms and all, the culinary arts and the feasts we share . Our diocese of Niagara its strategic plan has five dimensions, one of which is ‘the continuous culture of innovation’. Let’s give it and share creative expression with them. And we must create a politics with policies and procedures that sustain and expand love and justice for all God’s creatures.
When we begin 2017 January 1 it will be Canada’s 150th birthday – and the world needs more Canada. It will also be St. Mark’s 225th anniversary with this amazingly rich legacy and creative resources – the church needs more St. Mark’s! I’ve been thinking creatively about launching in Epiphany’s light, the ‘Zacchaeus Project’ – you know Zacchaeus who Jesus saw in the Sycamore tree in Jericho but told him to come down out of the tree ‘I want to go to your home and visit with you’. I intend to come and visit with each and every one of you – all 250 households in your homes or over in the Rectory. I want to visit to listen and to know how God’s creative spirit is working in your life in your experience, in your faith and how we can co-create with God in ministry together.
And every Sunday we will gather together in communion sharing the sacred wine, which to me is really the creative juice, to do more than we can ask or imagine. So I close not with a prayer but with a toast written by the controversial and creative Anglican priest Tom Harpur in this beautiful book called The Spirituality of Wine. He ends with this toast:
Here’s to everyone
To fullness of life on Earth
And bounteous blessings for all humanity
To justice compassion and the warmth of sun for all God’s creatures To the golden health of loved one’s everywhere
and the radiant glory of those who have gone before Creator God bless us now and evermore, So be it, Amen.
The Rev’d William A. Roberts, M. Div, M.B.A
william@williamroberts 416 706 4116
Mississauga, Ontario October 26, 2016
Dear People of St Mark’s, Niagara-on-the- Lake,
It is with both humility and excitement that I look forward to coming among you on January 1.
Before then I hope to meet some of you when I preach on November 13, and at other occasions
during Advent and Christmas. I will also be gradually moving into the rectory after the Festive
Emporium, which I trust will be a great success.
When I marvel at the beauty of St Mark’s, the church and the sacred surrounding grounds
anchoring Niagara-on-the-Lake, it feels like I am coming home, or at least coming full circle.
Growing up in Niagara, the first parish I served for three years was St John’s, Ancaster, also a
strikingly beautiful and historic parish church with a forested cemetery on six acres of land held
for 200 years in the centre of town.
As with thousands of others, I have been to Niagara-on-the-Lake numerous times over the years
with memorable dinners at the Pillar and the Post, and many plays at Shaw. I distinctly remember
a performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard that was controversial as local, agricultural
lands were being taken for commercial development. I note this past summer was a performance
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It was one of three plays I directed with the St. John’s Players of
Ancaster. I also played the role of Narrator and remember the simply truthful line,“there’s
something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being”.
Studying the St. Mark’s Parish Profile I am thoroughly impressed by the comprehensive
descriptions of the extensive parish facilities and resources, the worship and musical vitality, and
the commitment to ‘embrace heritage and change’. You are living out our baptismal vows ‘to
continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in the prayers’, embodied in outstanding
choral leadership, in timely discussions of ‘end-of life’ and other contemporary issues, in the
Cherry, Music Niagara and other Festivals.
The Addison Library and the Lecture Series are also impressive, the latter bringing in top
scholars such as Karen King from Harvard Divinity. This spring on a mini-sabbatical back at
Harvard I audited her Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with 20,000 others on ‘Christianity
Through Its Scriptures’. I also took a course in the emerging field of Theopoetics and am keen to
know ways of supporting the The Addison Centre for Religion and the Arts. I have done a good
bit of fundraising and ‘friend-raising’, and look forward to working with user groups, festival
and event planners. And this all in a coveted location with the joyful attributes of being as you
say ‘tasteful, clever, affluent, generous and Canadian’.
I read of your need for deepening worship life, spiritual authenticity and community-building.
Bishop Joe Fricker my lifelong mentor and friend, taught me much about liturgy and worship.
With his guidance, and that of my friend Canon Herb O’Driscoll, I organized a ‘Liturgy Through
the Centuries’ series and an ‘Ecumenical Preaching Convocation’ over four years at All Saints’
Cathedral, Edmonton. My life-long friend from St. Catharine’s, Peter Elliott and I went to Trent
University, Peterborough and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts
together. We share a lifetime of devotion to liturgical excellence and creativity. Thanks to my
Welsh heritage I have sung with the bass section in twelve choirs from Hamilton to Vancouver to
Jerusalem. Presiding at hundreds of weddings and other special services I take great care to up
lift spiritually and creatively those coming together in faith. In all my parish appointments I have
learned the wisdom of a priest friend who claims that the three keys to church growth are: i)
loving the people, ii) inspiring with music, iii) having a sense of humour.
This past spring I deepened my own spiritual practises with and by the Anglican Brothers at the
Society of St John the Evangelist at their Monastery in Cambridge. Brother James, a Canadian, is
now the Superior. With the SSJE Administrator we are discussing ways of strengthening
relationships and partnering with Canadian local parishes.
I read that St Mark’s is also committed to connecting in meaningful ways with the wider
community. When I was ordained a Deacon at the Cathedral in Hamilton I vowed to ‘interpret to
the church the needs, hopes and concerns of the world’ – a vow I take seriously as you can see
from my resume. My ministry has widened from my experience as an elected legislator, working
in public service especially on health care, heading up the Whistler Forum for Leadership and
Dialogue, and engaging with contemporary issues in China and the Middle East.
My many years of ministry at Whistler Village Church and with the Whistler Forum taught me
much about life in a ‘tourist town’. I know first-hand the unique challenges for local residents of
having thousands of visitors arrive for overnights to attend festivals and events. I supported the
Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Association to meet these challenges and maximize the
benefits. I am eager to live and work with you in Niagara-on-the-Lake and with the many visitors
to St Mark’s as a place to experience new truths and transformations on their journey.
You also rightly call for a priest who comes with authenticity and energy. Some have claimed
that I am too energetic. But I firmly believe with Irenaeus that ‘the glory of God is in people who
are fully alive’ and want to see God’s glory reflected in my life and our ministry together. I share
with you ‘personal struggles of faith’ as did Jesus and all the prophets. To me, an authentic faith
springs from these struggles. Thanks be to God that by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called
to be the Church ‘seeking Christ in all others, loving our neighbours as ourselves’.
Please pray for me as I prepare to come to serve and be among you. I pray for you and for
serving God together as we are called so to do in our time and in this place.
In faith and friendship,