Morning Prayer: Ps. 72 | Gen. 22:1-18 | John 6:52-59
Evening Prayer: Ps. 119:73-96 | Heb. 11:23-31
There is something of an embarrassment of riches in today’s lections — it’s all so good!! From the Sacrifice of Isaac to the beautiful eucharistic language in Jesus’ sermon on Himself as the bread of life to the selection from the famous “great cloud of witnesses” passage in the Letters to the Hebrews…it’s rather hard to know what to focus on, or what to say, given the voluminous history of Christian reflection on these very passages.
In light of this, I’ll talk about the saint commemorated today:
Anskar, the Apostle of the North, strikes me as a decidedly important saint for our times. As Holy Women, Holy Men relates, Anskar devoted his life to difficult and dangerous evangelistic work among the pagan Danes and Swedes, but the results during his lifetime were rather unimpressive, frustrated by ecclesiastical and imperial political difficulties, although he was able to consecrate the first Swedish bishop. Yet a few generations later, the first seeds which Anskar planted would bear fruit, and later missionary efforts would yield the Christianization of Scandinavia.
For me, and I think many others in the Church today, especially those in the old mainline denominations, our contemporary moment often feels, to quote the Collect of the Day, like “the day of small things.” So many of our congregations are aging and shrinking. Our seminaries are closing or merging or riled by dispute and discord. I know priests and pastors who have toiled tirelessly for the Gospel with, it seems, little effect. And as I discern a call to the ministry for myself, I worry at times about figuring out how to tame my own urge for accomplishment and cope with feelings of discouragement. St. Anskar reminds us that though we, like him, may not live to see the results of our work for the Gospel, “when [God has] begun a good work [He] will bring it to a fruitful conclusion.” If an apparent failure like Anskar can become the Apostle of the North, let us trust God that even in the moments where the Church feels weak and declining, God will not let it fail and may bring abundant life and grace into being through the work we do in ways we cannot anticipate and indeed may not ourselves see.
I’m reminded of a prayer by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, which you can find in The Violence of Love:
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Having evaded dealing with the actual lections, let me commend to your listening Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac. You can find a performance of it on YouTube here.