The Most Rev. Linda Nicholls, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada preached the following sermon at the New Year’s Day Festal Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa. A video of the Livestream can be found here.
As we approach the end of each year I prepare a letter to send to friends and family that captures the key events of the year in photos and text. As I look back over 2022 for our world I recall that it began in high hopes that I would be with you in person at Christ Church Cathedral… and just days before, it became clear that once again we needed to lockdown due to rising COVID numbers so the service was moved online. We ended 2022 with COVID receding in severity but endemic in our communities and other viruses re-emerging—RSV, flu… and now the concerning news that new variants could emerge in China as waves of COVID are renewed there. Yet where once masks were worn in every public place—they are now just seen on the cautious, elderly and those who have experienced the power of COVID and long-COVID!
The economy stumbles to recover as pre-COVID coordinated systems are unable to keep up with demand as workers are scarce for some jobs; war in Europe and natural disasters have disrupted supply chains—and global interdependence sends ripples into all corners. Prices for food are rising sharply. It is quite a shock to see a head of lettuce costing $4.50 or more! Food banks are busier than ever as people struggle to choose between rent and food.
Extremes of weather are battering communities around the world. As ocean waters warm—hurricanes extend further north and we watched in horror as parts of the east coast were swept into the ocean. Arctic air masses sweep down into North America with the devastating effects we saw just a week ago—extreme cold temperatures; high winds and people still without power for heat or light. Yet the annual COP meetings seem unable to find solutions—no one willing to be the first to make the biggest sacrifices in our voracious codependent global economic systems.
We saw the egregious invasion of Russia into Ukraine that has dislocated thousands of people, destroyed cities—and killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians—even as we have also seen the resilience of the Ukrainian people resisting defeat with an indomitable spirit facing down a bully.
I have just returned from nine days in the Holy Land where the Christian community clings precariously to sustain a presence—where settlements continue to be built on internationally agreed Palestinian territory; where the movement of Palestinians for work or even healthcare is limited or inconsistent; where the new government includes a coalition with extreme right-wing leaders whose policies are frightening in their effects and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Young Palestinians ask—‘what is there here for us?’—and many consider leaving. Any eventual success of the official ‘two state solution’ seems improbable if not impossible now.
Even as I descry the occupation of Palestinian lands I hear the echo of hypocrisy as we in Canada are asked about our occupation of Indigenous areas where treaties have not been honoured—or the land ever ceded at all. The work of reconciliation is a long, continuing, painful journey.
In the midst of it all our church is feeling fragile after the COVID lockdowns as some have not returned to join us in worship and gathered activities. Some continue to enjoy online access to worship. Others just got out of the habit of church. Financial resources are reduced and we struggle to express the gospel with joyful hope to new generations.
In the face of that litany of pain, loss, human inaction or aggression it is easy to sink into despair—and wonder about the power of the gospel to make a difference. We have had 2000 years and we still see unable to love our neighbour as ourselves and have not discovered a balance between the needs of community life and individual freedom and the church is in decline. We shun difference and seek scapegoats for our fears. The reign of Christ we long for seems as far away as ever!! What word of God will sustain us in 2023?
We are not given a map or timeline for the fullness of God’s reign to be known—only the stories of how it has begun. The seeds of God’s reign are in the stories we have of Jesus and how God chooses to be with us. God comes into the world now—not with a flood to wipe us out and start again—not in power but in vulnerability; not to royalty but in poverty. God comes quietly—to ordinary people—in their daily lives—and is revealed to those willing to see and respond. God works through us like salt or yeast.
We begin 2023 with our celebration of Epiphany and a season of hearing the biblical stories of that revealing of Christ. Jesus is revealed to Mary and Joseph; to shepherds in the fields; to Simeon and Anna in the temple and to foreign magi—Zoroastrian astrologers. Through their own ways of seeing the world through the stars they see a sign of the birth of a Jewish king and set out to find him—travelling many months and bringing gifts. I wonder what changed for them or for the shepherds having seen the child? These seem such small revelations—and no follow-up to know whether it made a difference We will never know the effect of stories the shepherds and magi would tell—though a few movies and books have imagined for us!
If I wanted to transform the world—would I start so small? Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist, proposed a theory that even the flap of a butterfly’s wings at a great distance could change weather patterns in unpredictable ways! The ‘Butterfly effect’, as it is known, has become a metaphor for the truth that a small action can lead to much bigger and unexpected changes than anticipated. The opening scenes of the movie Pay It Forward, for example, show the rippling effects of an act of kindness as the effect on each recipient leads to more.
In the darkness of the brokenness and pain of our world that repeats itself with no seeming end in sight I find this metaphor is the one that helps us understand God’s activity in our midst. What began with a vulnerable baby entrusted to two ordinary parents—would grow and ripple out one disciple at a time. Every action of love, forgiveness, grace, a part of the whole vision of God’s reign. The question is not—Why is the world still so broken? But rather ‘what would it look like if God were not here?’
It is like George Bailey in the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’—what if George had never stopped the pharmacist from making his mistake? What if the Building and Loans Co-op had never existed and provided homes for so many? What if George had never been there to offer compassion and love to friends and family? George was given the opportunity to see the ‘what ifs..?’ and discover that his ordinary, daily actions of kindness and grace made a difference.
The smallest of responses to God—the ‘yes’ of a young woman to become a mother; the ‘yes’ of her fiancé to resist social expectations; the ‘yes’ of the disciples—fishermen, tax collectors, zealots—were enough to begin something new. The angels cried, ‘Come to Bethlehem and see’! Disciples are invited to come and see and in every generation God invites us to come and see God at work.
I began with a litany of the disasters, pain and brokenness of our world in 2022. Yet threaded through the year are also stories of acts of compassion, kindness, generosity, love and mercy. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8). Stories of human beings reflecting the image of God into the world wherever there is need. During the recent storm—neighbours were checking on neighbours; shovelling driveways; sharing meals, welcoming stranded strangers. Refugees from around the world have found shelter and a new life in our midst.
I recently watched the movie, Peace by Chocolate, the story of a Syrian Muslim refugee family who end up in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Chocolate makers by background they begin again to make chocolate to support the family with the help of neighbours and new friends. They now have a factory in the town that employs a number of local people. Many have seen the musical, ‘Come from Away’, the story of the town of Gander, Newfoundland during the 9-11 disaster when over 30 large planes landed in that small community, unable to land at home in the USA, and the town responded with generosity, care, food and friendship.
As Primate I receive all of the diocesan newspapers. Over Christmas I sat down to read through the December issues—and was struck by all the ways in which Anglicans are changing their communities and making God’s presence known through their generosity—food banks; community meals; anti-racism work; youth camps and activities; pastoral care; refugee sponsorship and so much more. Imagine if every diocese just disappeared and ceased to be present! We do make a difference—local, small, and real. We will never know the full impact of our response to God—only that it matters.
The pain of the world is so apparent—climate change; wars; natural disasters; human greed or desire for power; and the legacies of human failures in the past that haunt us today. It can be overwhelming to face a new year wondering if the vision of God’s reign will prevail. God does not promise us when or how that will emerge—only offers us the revelations of God with us—now—inviting us one small action at a time to set in motion the change that is needed: pouring into the world forgiveness, love, mercy and compassion to our neighbours, near and far: working for justice and dignity for every human being; protecting and advocating for the climate: telling the story of God’s reign and living each day as a disciple of Jesus Christ; being the seeds of a different future.
We enter a new year seeing the pain and brokenness—and with the sure knowledge God is with us inviting us to live in the light of the Gospel and plant seeds of God’s reign that, though small, matter. May we find encouragement, hope and joy as we face 2023 having met ‘God with us’ in Jesus Christ and making him known in this hurting world.
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