A sermon by Dean Peter Elliott at the Cathedral’s St. Brigids Liturgy
A few weeks ago as a participant on an interfaith panel at SpiritPride, our United church neighour St. Andrew’s Wesley’s celebration of queer identity, I offered a definition of spirituality that has been in the background of my thinking for sometime[i]. It comes from Ukrainian Catholic theologian Dr. Michael Hryniuk who defines spirituality in three words, meaning, healing and belonging[ii].
Meaning, healing and belonging: three simple words that capture what I think we’re longing for in these days when violence and prejudice capture the headlines in the news. Stories from the US, Spain and Finland have come to us through our social media feeds, TV and newspapers, stories of deaths sparked by anti immigrant, white supremacist movements.
These recent events activated over 4000 people to basically shut down an anti Islamic demonstration at Vancouver’s City Hall yesterday. It was amazing to observe signs that celebrated love, compassion, inclusivity and justice and, with others, chant slogans that affirmed the dignity of every human being. It was for a Christian like me, heartening to see a large crowd made up of people from a variety of religious faiths and no faith take a stand for what we affirm in our baptism promises, to resist the evil powers which destroy the children of God.
In the midst of all it all, there’s been a search for meaning, for healing and for belonging: leading me to think that the events of these past few days represent a spiritual crisis and perhaps even a spiritual awakening in our time.
Hyrniuk offers definitions of the three words—meaning, healing and belonging that he uses to define spirituality. Meaning refers to a person or a group’s “whole way of life in response to what they perceive to be of ultimate meaning, value, and power”—the orienting principle in life. Healing does not refer to curing a disease but to overcoming the inner split between our true selves and our false selves; to rediscovering the undivided self. Belonging refers to a recognition that human beings are in their essence, social beings. We are born into and made for community.
Spirituality is found in the complex interplay between these three dynamics of meaning, healing and belonging: so let’s take those concepts and overlay them on two of the readings appointed for this evening: Joseph’s emotional reunion with the brothers who betrayed him[iii], and the two sections from gospel of Matthew about inner thoughts and Jesus encounter with the Canaanite woman[iv].
First to Joseph: it’s one of the most emotionally evocative stories in all of the Bible, when Joseph’s brothers return to Egypt, begging help from the Pharaoh’s assistant , not recognizing that it is the brother that they, out of jealousy, beat up and sold to slave dealers. Shedding great tears, Joseph is reunited with his brothers and anticipates a reunion with his beloved father.
Where do we find meaning in this story? We find meaning in the hope that circumstances, even tragic circumstances, can change. There is at work in God’s economy a reversal of fortune. It’s the ability of God’s grace to bring goodness out of tragedy, hope out of despair.
While we can lament a particular moment of our lives or of history, we see only partially. This is not to say that terrible things come our way for a reason, but it is to say that out of terrible things, like what Joseph’s brothers did to him, there can come unexpected graces because God is in the business of bringing hope out of despair.
For example, while there has been tragic loss of life in the recent events, there has also been a mobilization of resistance and a coming together, like at City Hall yesterday, of forces who have been prompted many of us to get up out our comfortable positions and publicly declare our deepest values.
Healing is all over this story; tears and healing often come together as, in this story, deep family divisions are finally transcended and broken relationships are restored.
Belonging is a huge theme of the Joseph cycle: it is the twelve tribes of Israel, the descendants of his twelve sons who become a holy people who learn what it means to belong to one another.
They are our spiritual ancestors, and the witness of Jesus and the church draws all of the human beings into one family, one human family—beyond race or gender, or tribe or nation.
We belong together, and a recovery of this belonging, together with the healing of brokenness and the meaning that came from the reunion is the spirituality that glues this passage together, inviting us all into a deeper appreciation of the places where we find meaning, healing and belonging.
Let’s turn then to the selection from Matthew’s gospel, a mash-up of two related but separate moments. First comes Jesus teaching about what defiles human beings, clearly some commentary from him the efficacy of dietary laws.
He argues that it is not what we physically eat that defiles us, but it is the attitude of our inner selves; it is the way, in other words, we construct meaning in our lives, the ways we sometimes avoid healing and the ways that we forget that we belong together.
And then, as if to demonstrate how this works, he is confronted by a Canaanite woman who is seeking healing for her daughter. Now understand that observant Jews and Canaanites were long time enemies. Not only that she was a woman demanding something of a rabbi.
So, very uncharacteristically Jesus seeks to ignore her and dismiss her request. But she persists—engages him in a bit of near eastern wit—and as he responds, he changes his mind. He extends his healing energy to include her.
The meaning here is so very clear—if Jesus can change his mind, so can we. Hearts and minds can be changed when we engage with others beyond our stereotypes.
Healing is all over this story—through this encounter a long-standing enmity is all but erased. And belonging, once again, the affirmation that we belong together: Canaanites and Jews, Christians and Muslims, women and men, transgender and cisgender.
Across every sectionality that we can imagine, the Christian proclamation affirms that we are all one.
It is why we are called in our baptismal promises to strive for justice and peace for all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Over the past week there have been two events here in the Cathedral that have expressed a spirituality of meaning, healing and belonging. First was a funeral on Tuesday of a man who had been ill for many years, but in his youth he had been very involved in conservative Christianity and in the ex-gay movement. After much study and therapy he came to accept himself as a gay man and was proud of his dual identity as a gay person and as a Christian.
He asked that his funeral liturgy be here and that it be the Eucharist, and that on his casket the rainbow flag would be draped. And so we did. Right here in the Chancel. And his friends, gay and straight, gathered around him one more time to affirm his identity as a follower of Jesus and gay man. That’s how he found meaning, healing and belonging in his life and in his death.
Then yesterday there was a wedding here. The groom is an Anglican, an anglo, raised in Vancouver; his bride is culturally Muslim, raised in Iran, but living here now and they met at their workplace. As I looked out on the congregation, half were anglos and the other half, Persian. Their wedding day included the service here, and a Persian ceremony at the reception.
They were able to combine both traditions because love had transcended cultural difference. They both found meaning in each other’s traditions, they found healing in their creative combining them, and they brought to all of us who could witness their vows a deeper sense of belonging to the human family.
The power of love at the heart of the universe, the God we know in Jesus Christ is always calling us to articulate the ways we understand meaning in our lives, always calling us to seek healing of our divided selves and our divided communities, and always inviting us to know the deep belonging that is our heritage and our home.
As we gather at the table for Eucharist this evening may we know the meaning of the love of God, the healing of the sacrament of bread and wine and the belonging to God and one another that this holy meal incarnates.
[i] Facebook folks can find my remarks here https://www.facebook.com/notes/peter-elliott/religion-faith-inclusiveness-reasons-for-hope/10154608073451987/
[ii] Michael Hryniuk’s work was cited by the late Dr. Christopher Lind in a Cathedral sermon September 9, 2009
[iii] GENESIS 45:1-15
[iv] MATTHEW 15:10-28