Private and Public Faith – Feb 4, 2018
How do we balance the public and the private aspects of our Christian faith? Do we really need communal worship or is individual prayer enough? How do our personal experiences of God translate into public proclamation “by word and example” of “the good news of God in Christ,” as we promise in our baptismal covenant? How do we balance study and prayer with service in the broader community? And as a parish community, how do we hold the tension between belonging and mission? These are the kinds of questions that today’s Gospel passage encourages but first, a few stories about this tension between public and private expressions of faith.
Early in January several of our young families gathered to reflect on baptism. In the course of the discussion, one person wondered about how their primarily private practice of faith could shift for the express purpose of modelling it for their young child. Their practice of prayer is quiet and individual, including, for instance, prayer before bed. But with such a private expression of faith, how does one pass it along to a child? How does a young child see them practicing their faith, so that they can copy it? Imitation, modelling, especially in the early years, is a key part of learning. And so a question and struggle was expressed about how to begin to find a more public expression of private Christian faith, even in one’s own home. It makes me wonder too how we, as a community of faith, support parents and grandparents in their quest to pass along their Christian faith to their children and grandchildren? How do we participate in modelling our Christian faith, in fulfilment of our promise to “do all in our power to support” those making a commitment to Christ in baptism?
The tension between the public and private practice of our faith also played out this week in relation to our planning for Lent. On the back of the pink announcement sheet you will see a list of our various upcoming parish activities. They include worship, community gathering over meals, opportunities for individual and collective spiritual development, and reflective artistic engagement with the story of Christ’s passion. They are all opportunities to connect with God and one another… to grow in our belonging to the family of God. But late this week I began to wonder if or how they can also be opportunities for mission. An invitation to our Shrove Tuesday pancake supper and Ash Wednesday service of Imposition of Ashes has already been sent through St. Andrew’s community newsletter. What if we made a poster promoting these opportunities for sacred connection in the wider community? It wasn’t until Kate had started re-formatting our announcements that I realized our need to think and communicate differently. We need to change descriptions from “please sign up to volunteer” to “all are welcome.” We need to include contact information! And so this week we will try again to make a poster for the wider world. We will try again to promote our private activities in the public square, in an effort to model faith as one part of our mission in the world.
Lent begins every year with a service of the Imposition of Ashes. Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence and mourning and the service offers a beautiful opportunity to remember our mortality, the frailty and uncertainty human life, so that we are free to live more abundantly. As churches everywhere work to get out of our private spaces and re-connect with the wider community, a trend of sorts has developed called “Ashes-to-go.” The idea is that on a normal winter Wednesday, many people of faith can’t make the time to attend a special church service, but that doesn’t mean they don’t yearn for a sacred moment in their day. And so “ashes-to-go” stations are set up in public places – street corners and subway stations – where people can receive the sign of ashes in the midst of their busy lives. I think it’s an intriguing idea and so I’m looking into the possibility of going to the University or the hospital. Both have institutional red tape so a street corner may be the only option. If I go, I won’t go alone… so please let me know if you’d be willing to join me in stepping out of our comfort zone in this way, to bring a private sacred moment to the public square.
Our Gospel passage today is itself a study in the public and private aspects of living our faith. It could it titled “A Day in the Life of Jesus,” though Jesus’ day actually began in the passage before what we heard this morning. It is still the Sabbath day when Jesus entered the synagogue to teach and a man with an unclean spirit cried out, disrupting the whole service. Jesus rebuked the spirit and healed the man and now with today’s passage, they head home from church, as it were, and go to Simon and Andrew’s home for lunch. I wonder if Jesus is tired from the preaching and exorcising and healing and just wants a little tomato soup and grilled cheese before, perhaps, an afternoon nap. But it’s not to be – at least not right away. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick and so before any tomato soup and grilled cheese will be forth-coming, Jesus needs to heal her. But even then Jesus’ day isn’t over. Evening comes and the people of Capernaum bring to Jesus “all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”
The next morning, while it was still dark, after what I hope was a good night’s sleep, even if it was too short, Jesus “got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” I wonder what he prayed? After a day of the public ministry: teaching in the synagogue and healing all those who were sick or possessed with demons, Jesus steals away to pray privately, in solitude. Jesus models for us how we too are to follow in God’s way. We are to proclaim God’s good news message; we are to care for those who are hurting; we are to offer public ministry of all kinds; and we are to take time away from this work to personally connect with the Spirit of God who dwells within us.
We don’t know how long Jesus’ prayer-time lasted. In narrative time it passes quickly enough as his companions – Simon and the gang – hunt him down. However long it was in between, it seems it was long enough, for when they find him and say “Everyone is searching for you,” Jesus is ready with a response, a plan and renewed purpose: “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
This time two years ago, in 2016, we were embarking on a year with lots of external focus… a year of exploring mission. We organized a forum on “medical assistance in dying;” we held an educational program through Lent that had broad appeal; and, we hosted a community breakfast. Last year, 2017, focussed more on our internal community and ministries in an effort to make space for a greater diversity of people to belong. Belonging and mission. Public service and private prayer. These are tensions we will continue to hold this year as we again strive to reach out beyond the bounds of this community. We have relationships with the local community association and with Brentwood Care Centre that we can build on. Interest has consistently been expressed in finding ways of connecting more meaningfully at the University. Perhaps there are other ways, as yet unexplored, of modelling our faith in Christ through our service in the community. And our 60th anniversary offers us the opportunity to celebrate who we have been in the past, who we are now, and to dream about who we want to be into the future.
Balancing the public and the private aspects of our Christian faith is not a static goal but a way of life. It is up to each of us in our own lives to discern what side of the equation needs more attention at the moment… today, this week, this year. And it is up to us as a community to find a rhythm together, swaying somewhere between the extremes of frantic motion and stasis, of reflection and work, of comfortable belonging and risky mission, of private prayer and public proclamation. The good news of God in Christ, modelled for us today in our story of Jesus, is that both are necessary in our life of faith. May we find both comfort and challenge as we grow in the private and public expressions of our faith.