Wednesday, March 21, 2012

March 18, 2012 Reflection by Rev. David Boyd

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Rev. David Boyd

Back when I was a student, an adult student training to be a minister in Vancouver, I did my internship at St. Andrew's Wesley United in downtown Vancouver. We were required to do a year-long internship as part of our requirement to be ordained or commissioned in the United Church. St. Andrew's Wesley was a bit prestigious church that was sometimes referred to as the Cathedral United Church of BC Conference. It was also a very humbling place at which to do an internship. It attracted people of different beliefs and perspectives, many of whom were well educated, and I learned a lot about people.
I was called to preach once in a while at the main Sunday morning service. (As a lowly student, they didn't want to hear what I had to say very often.) One Sunday morning when I did get to preach, one of the Biblical passages was from one of Paul's letters, perhaps Romans, which was a rallying cry for the Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer and others. I started out my sermon by asking something like, "could the reformers have got it wrong? Is it all about God's grace and we have no part to play in working out our own transformation?" After the worship was over and there were many polite expressions of gratitude at the door; one elderly woman, however, a well-read woman who came from Scotland, with all her dignity intact said to me, "Well, young man. I just don't know what to say. Did you not read Thomas Torrance in seminary? He'd be aghast at what you said this morning." And with that she walked off.
I did read Thomas Torrance as a matter of fact; he was a prominent Scottish theologian and church leader in the Church of Scotland who taught in Edinburgh, I believe; he died just a few years ago at the age of 94. And he was a very good theologian; he forged a number of bridges with the Eastern Orthodox Church and worked ecumenically with the Anglicans and Roman Catholics. My issue certainly was not with Torrance or with Reformers per se; but I wanted to offer what made sense to me at the time, and still makes sense to me, and that is that we have a part to play, a responsibility in our work in healing the world and mending our own lives. To be sure, emphatically, we work with God in this, but I've always subscribed to the theology of another British Isles theologian, a man by the name of Pelagius, who lived 1700 years before Torrance.
Pelagius was likely a Welshman whose writings became famous in the late 300's and early 400's. This was when the Celtic Church was flourishing in Northern Britain. He was a man who was known as an ascetic; in other words, he spent time alone as a solitary monk, praying, writing, meditating and eking out a living. His big claim to fame is that he was branded a heretic because he questioned some of the doctrines of the early Church and especially some of the cherished beliefs of one Augustine of Hippo, the leading Church theologian of the day. Pelagius believed that God became human in Jesus to show us what being truly human is all about and to declare that the divine image is very much still a part of creation. The image of God in each one of us is indestructible. "God's grace and [compassion] are offered to us at every moment to aid us in growing more capable of reflecting the gracious life of the God who breathes us into being."1 Wikipedia, that all important font of knowledge, tells us, that Pelagius did not believe in Original Sin, the idea that through Adam and Eve, sin came into the world, a sin that we all share by virtue of our birth into the human race. Pelagius did not believe this, nor do I. Pelagius believed in free will, that we choose how to live and participate in our own transformation with God's grace and love guiding us, drawing us forward, you might say.
Some historians suggest that Pelagius was well respected because he was well read, spoke Greek and Latin and was very conversant in the leading thinkers of his day. But Augustine, because he lived near Rome rather than in a far distant Isle, was able to sway the opposition against Pelagius. He was branded a heretic in 418.
When I got to seminary, I encountered Pelagius in the course of my studies. It was a bit like coming home. When I read what he had to say, it rang true to me. PeopleÑsome of my fellow studentsÑlaughed when I held up Pelagius and his teachings; they reminded me that he was a heretic. Yes, I would say, but have you actually read what he wrote. Some Celtic Church historians have suggested that Pelagius' ideas never died; they just went underground and became part of the fabric of people's lives in Wales, Northumbria and Scotland in particular. It is suggested that Pelagius' teachings are reflected in the prayers of ordinary people who lived hard lives—farming in difficult soil, fishing in turbulent seas, toiling away as a blacksmith or as a tanner. They knew that God was with them, but they also realized that God was not going to milk their cow, raise their fish nets, forge their horseshoes, light their fires in the morning, care for their children. There are prayers for dressing in the morning, for hunting, for fishing, for milking, for lighting the morning cook fire, for the going down of the sun. They all speak of God's presence in their lives, God's grace and compassion, but they also know that God works with them in the work that they are called to do. There are prayers for gratitude and compassion, prayers of forgiveness and repentance, all of which point to Pelagius' ideas that we work with God in mending the world and our own lives. These prayers and this theology was alive and well when I was at Iona in 2005; one of the weeks that I was there as a volunteer was a week of Celtic theology expressed in the songs and poetry of the Orkney and Hebredean Islands. Pelagius was mentioned by name. The music was lovely Celtic music spoken in Gaelic and translated into English.
My father, a United Church minister, must have preached this theology. I don't recall ever having heard the name Pelagius before I took my own studies in Vancouver. But dad's theology was very much about God's grace being alive and well in our lives—that we all bear God's image, but we work with God in making the world a better place and in tending to our own lives.
I offer these thoughts in response to the Ephesians passage, which Jayne read for us this morning. This passage, almost more than any other, was the rallying cry of the Reformation in the 16th century. "By grace we are saved!" I don't dispute that, but I also believe that we work with that grace in working for freedom and liberation of those who are held in bondage by unjust systems and institutions. We work with God's grace to mend the brokenness of our own lives. We work with God's grace to undo the horrors of child abuse, racism, and homophobia. We work with God's grace to figure out our lives and what they might mean and who we might become. We work with God's grace in healing our own infirmities or the infirmities of others. We work with God's grace in advocating peace and urging Obama and Netanyahu not to bomb Iran. We work with God's grace in calling to account those who would recruit children as soldiers and servants of oppressive regimes and brutal dictators. This is what I said 25 years ago in St. Andrew's Wesley Church and I stand behind this belief.
God's grace enables us to do much more than we can ask or imagine. God's grace enables us to mend the world and care for one another in deep and profound ways. I leave you with a Celtic prayer for the evening as the sun recedes over the horizon:
  The eye of the great God,
  The eye of the God of glory,
  The eye of the Sovereign of hosts,
  The eye of the Sovereign of the living,
   Pouring upon us
    At each time and season,
   Pouring upon us
    Gently and generously.

  Glory be to thee,
   Thou glorious sun.
  Glory be to thee, thou sun,
   Face of the God of life.2  
  1 Mary C. Earle, Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings—Annotated and Explained, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, p5 
  2 "Prayer for the Evening" quoted in A Little Book of Celtic Prayer, edited by Anthony Duncan, p35

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