the penultimate WORD

Series 2007 - May
Beginning here...


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican








You will be my witnesses beginning here...”

Jesus, Acts 1:8



Good-byes are seldom pleasant. For all of our good-byes we never seem to be fully prepared for the loss. My good-byes have been remarkably like parting episodes in countless lives in every generation. Jesus’ parting words carried with them the same weight we have borne in those partings in our lives. For all of that, he is close to us even as he prepares to leave, knowing that we each know the feeling of such loss.

As a young boy I remember well seeing my Uncle and Aunt off at Union Station in Saint John as they boarded the overnight train to Montreal. Their visit over, my Dad and I would walk them to the station platform and see them to their car. For the length of their visit, these last minutes seemed especially valued, as important parting words were exchanged. Following them like shadows on the platform, we saw them settled into their seats. They would wave, and we would wave. Kisses would be blown as two brothers parted company again, and a final wave exchanged as the steam locomotive lurched the car into motion and the train slowly headed west.

I remember the echo of the Union Station, the high vaulted ceiling, the heavy oak benches imposed like over-sized pews on a smooth stone floor. Foot steps blended with the Station Master’s voice on the public address system. Glass doors framed in oak and guarded by polished brass fittings opened out into a parking lot and we were able to see the trailing lights of the Park Car disappear out of sight.

Driving home I talked excitedly about their visit as I tried to rub my Aunt’s bright red lipstick off my cheek. My Dad proffered his handkerchief for this vain effort and he talked about his brother and would tell me stories of when he and his brother grew up on Metcalf Street.

We were bearing witness – to each other and beginning there, and then.

Witnessing is like that. And witnessing is something that Jesus expected his disciples would do.

As witnesses, we are implicated in the events surrounding us and burdened with their corresponding memories. We can testify to details, elect to affect change, bear witness to events, or remain passive in our response.

Often we have remained passive, or else we have been annoyingly enthusiastic in our effusion. Sometimes our witness is misplaced and for all of our testimony no details are shared and no positive change is encouraged.

Recently I received an e-mail that bore such a witness. The details aren’t important. Suffice it to say that the e-mail that arrived in my Inbox featured a couple of Priests and a Sister and the spirit of the communication was salacious. It was supposed to be funny. I have to say that I enjoy a laugh as much as the next person... but when I re-read the letter I found a clue as to why pews are more empty than full in all of our churches. Slander that gets a chuckle seems to get approval as long as it is at the expense of religious.

The joke confirms my position that the only thing worse than clericalism is anti-clericalism.

If the joke was aimed at the Church Warden, a Vestry Member or a Layreader, or the Parish Treasurer or the Sunday School Superintendent we would take offence because we can all identify with these roles in the faith community. The all-too-familiar humour had less to do with vacations in the sun and topless beaches and libidinal urges than the perversity of misrepresentation. Its promotion only serves to empty pews and communion rails.

Regardless, we become part of a larger whole, a community of disparate perspectives that simultaneously see and become seen. Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. What is most important, perhaps, is that unlike all other terms of social organization… it never seems to be used unfavourably, and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguished term.

Jesus addressed his followers as a community and he expected them to bear such a witness in their lives that would serve to attract and encourage others to enter community. He expects no less of us. The character of that community remains open for every generation. Whether we are closed or open, exclusive or inviting, is measured in large part by the witness we bear, beginning where we are. And now.

Copyright © 2007 James T. Irvine

Photo: Union Station, Saint John, New Brunswick

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Series 2007

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton