The Venerable John Stephens

1 Samuel 1: 4-20; 1 Samuel 2: 1-10; Hebrews 10: 11-14; Mark 13: 1-8

In the wake of the acts of atrocity and terrorism in Paris, the world feels heavier, darker. How could this happen? How could any religion support or applaud these actions? That is hard to say, what I do know is that the world needs, perhaps more than ever, places like this, spiritual places bent on praying for peace, praying for all people of faith to invite God’s direction, not some narrow, violent, power hungry alternative. To affirm that we are called to a compassionate vision on what it means to be human, to be religious and to live a spiritual life. Today we pray for that new vision.

Let me tell you about Dr Sanduk Ruit, an ophthalmologist in Nepal who may very well be world champion in the war on blindness. He has restored sight to a staggering 100,000 people, probably more than any doctor in history. People come to him in droves, staggering, groping their way along mountain trails and from remote villages. His work is miraculous, especially in a poor and challenged country like Nepal.

Dr Ruit has pioneered a simple, small impact, cataract microsurgery technique that costs about $25 per patient and is virtually always successful. In fact his “Nepal Method” as I understand it, is now being taught in some medical school in the United States.

Thuli Maya Thing is one of his patients. A woman of about 50 who lost her sight to cataracts and as a result she and her family suffered greatly as she could not fetch firewood or water, she could not work, she could not cook, she had been burned several times, extreme poverty seemed her only future. Not long after she came to the clinic, Dr Ruit was able through a small incision to remove the cataract and then insert a tiny new lens and essentially that was it. The process took about five minutes. It is absolutely incredible. After being bandaged for about 24 hours, when tested, Thuli Maya’s eyes were 20/20. “I used to get around by crawling and now I can get up and walk” she said through her smiles and her dancing. Her entire life was incredibly transformed.

A truly inspirational story, a good news story, the type of tale that we wish we could hear more often; where the knowledge and skill that exists in the world could transform even more for the better. It is an amazing story but what has it got to do with us? We might be amazed that more than 100,000 people could be helped and the dignity of many human beings certainly respected but how does it connect with us here? Well not to downplay the miraculous story from this clinic in Nepal but today especially after all that took place in Paris, we are here in this place to be transfigured in sight. We come to be transformed, changed, renewed, reborn, to see with new eyes, God at work in our world. To have our eyes and our lenses changed to see anew that indeed God is amongst us calling us not to hatred but peace and compassion.

Jesus and his closest followers, his disciples were at the temple. Now the temple was a grand building, some might say inspirational in itself, some might say an architectural marvel, some might say a credit to the faith. It was massive, beautiful, quite stunning to behold. Having just come back from being at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London my sense is that there are some similarities. At St. Paul’s it is hard not to stop staring upwards at the dome at the artwork throughout but especially on the ceiling or the woodwork, the massive expanse of the place. I can relate to Jesus’ followers in their amazement at the temple.

But Jesus was not all that impressed was he? Jesus was not exactly stunned by the beauty. He seemed quite happy to get away from the place and move to other things and other places. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.” Well that was certainly a conversation stopper. What was he really saying?

Well I think his point was that the temple was only a marvel if it maintained its original vision. The building was grand but faith is not all about bricks and mortar. The building was a marvel but it seemed to be masking the greatest marvel. The building was solid and massive and inspiring but it was blocking people’s vision of what it is all about: a true connection, a true vision of God working in our lives, a true invitation to walk in ways of justice and peace. The building was a treasure but only if it was seen how it was much like a mustard seed, a metaphor of God’s kingdom.

We here at St. Philip’s have been talking about our vision for the last while especially during this 90th Anniversary. We gathered last Saturday to explore this further, to begin a process where we think about who we are as a church, where God has led us over the past 90 years and where God is calling us now. Our vision is not all about our building or if it is we are sadly mistaken. Our vision is about seeing God’s presence more clearly in our lives and in this place. A building dedicated to worship is not the end result but merely a step along the path to drawing closer to recognizing God moving in our lives and this world. It is about offering us a lens to see more clearly.

Lately here at St. Philip’s we have also been focussing upon stewardship and we have named the theme for this campaign 20/25 Vision. The theme was intended to help us see that we are looking to the future but also that we are looking beyond ourselves. 20/25 Vision is about inviting God to lead us forward, it is about recognizing that as a church it is not all about us as individuals but where the Holy Spirit is leading us. 20/25 Vision is about claiming our faith in God and that all that we have and all that we are has been given to us as a gift. We didn’t deserve it, we didn’t earn it, we are incredibly blessed, though, and when we recognize that, God in Jesus then asks us so now what? Picking up on Jesus’ words, this building can be thrown down but then what? What is it that we are craving deep in our lives, deep in our soul? What is it that this gift of life is really all about? What is it that this building or St. Paul’s Cathedral or the Temple in Jerusalem really represents? A beautiful building or a place to encounter holiness and the true meaning of life? A place that points to the deep spiritual quest that every human being has? A foundational place that holds dear the words of Jesus to pay attention to the signs in our midst pointing to the gracious hand of God amongst us. A building that is pointing out the magnificence of the gift of life and to pray for and live peace in this world.

(This morning John will be baptised. Little John who has already become a member of this parish but is now being brought into the fellowship of all the saints and marking the start of his journey with Christ. Listen to a few words from the Baptismal service, as they are life transforming, vision forming, ground shaking, foundational: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth? These questions form the foundation and the basis of why we are here today and why this church was built. How do they transform you and how do they give you new vision in your life? How do they help you see what you and all of us are called to be and do?

John, we hope and pray that you will be transformed by these words and will guide us to be as well. We hope and pray that your baptism this day will point out what is truly important in this gift of life and how we too are called to give back in response to make this world a better place. We hope and pray that you will show us that faith is not peripheral to life but the centre of life itself. We hope and pray that you will grow up, much like Hannah’s son Samuel, to be a prophet in our midst pointing out to us that we are not about violence or buildings or the things that can one day be thrown down but rather grounded upon things that are eternal and feed our soul from this day and for eternity. We pray and hope that our vision this day will be transformed as you John are transformed to see with new eyes what God is doing amongst us. We pray and hope that our calling to be followers of the Prince of Peace may lead us all to a new hope a new trust in God’s hope for all of us. May God continue to bless you, John, and each one of us this day and all days as we do. )

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury offered these words in the wake of the violence and horror of the terrorism in Paris: “We weep with those affected, pray for deliverance and justice.” May these words become our words not just in the wake of Friday but as a way to walk in this world with faith, thanksgiving and a new vision grounded on God’s love. Perhaps now more than ever this response to our faith is desperately needed in our world.