In the calendar of the church we commemorate today the life and ministry of a late nineteenth-century Canadian priest, Simon Thomas Gibbons. (Our community has close ties with the Anglican Church of Canada, with many of our brothers having served over the decades in outpost ministries in Canada and with two of our current brothers being Canadian.)
Simon Thomas Gibbons was born in Labrador in 1851.[i] His mother, an Eskimo, died in his childbirth; his father, a fisherman, died several years later leaving him orphaned and destitute. At age six he was taken in by an Anglican orphanage in Nova Scotia; however when the directress of the orphanage married, Simon became an adopted son whose new father happened to be the Bishop of Newfoundland. The course for Simon Gibbons’ life would forever change.
Two things stand out in his early years: one, that he was a very, very bright student; and secondly, that he looked very, very much like an Eskimo. Apparently for both of these reasons, he was popular to some and bullied by others. He became invincible, with his intellect, his physical stamina, his budding charisma and eloquence. He eventually prepared for Holy Orders, was ordained a deacon in 1877, age 26, and a year later, a priest. He began his ministry among fishermen in Newfoundland.
One of his early biographers described the road through his district as “little better than a trail, nearly impassable in winter.” In an early letter to his archdeacon, Gibbons wrote, “I shall have a lot of walking to do and will have to carry some grub and a change of clothes with me on my back.” Vivid stories are still told in Cape Breton of his winter experiences: hopping from one pan of drift-ice to another to cross an inlet, crawling on his hands and knees along an icy shore-line to reach an isolated community for Christmas festival services, climbing a steep, winding trail over the mountains wearing snowshoes. More than once he stumbled into a friend’s home after a 100-mile trek on foot from the north, utterly fatigued and with blood-stained shoes.
Gibbons’ arduous ministry was interspersed with trips to Great Britain in 1881 and again in 1882 to solicit funds for the building up of both the people and their churches in his mission. A biographer writes: “He had qualifications not possessed by every “collector”: a musical voice, fluent and eloquent speech, an attractive personality, and above all his thoroughly Eskimo physique.” He also had an endearing sense of humor. Gibbons made a wry comment about his own appearance: “My face was my fortune.” Gibbons attracted large audiences wherever he traveled and spoke in England, including at Westminster Abbey. He also appeared before Queen Victoria, returning from England to his beloved Nova Scotia with prayers, goodwill, and considerable financial assistance. He was tireless in building up structures and building up people. In 1896 he died a grateful, fulfilled, exhausted man, age 45.
We remember Simon Thomas Gibbons for several reasons:
Redemption: Redemption is a mysterious gift in life, how even the greatest tragedy, loss, mistake, waste will not be our undoing but rather our making. There is a treasure waiting to be uncovered in even the sorriest and most tragic of circumstances. Jesus has come “to seek and to save the lost,” and that includes all the losses which have informed or deformed our own lives.[ii] God is very frugal, wasting nothing. Simon Thomas Gibbons’ very tragic early childhood was not his breaking but rather his making. Nothing was wasted; nothing is to be wasted. God used it all in Simon Thomas Gibbons, and God will use it all in your own life. Nothing is wasted; nothing is to be wasted in your life.
Generosity: Simon Thomas Gibbons became such an eloquent and effective missioner and preacher of Jesus’ light and life and love. He was a channel of Jesus’ good news of salvation to so many people, from the hinterlands of Nova Scotia to magisterial courts of England. He preached what he had received. We hear Jesus saying in the Gospel lesson appointed for today, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” It’s not that Jesus’ missioners did not need a purse with money, or a bag with belongings, or sandals… (perhaps snowshoes). Quite to the contrary, they did; they do. It’s simply that it would be provided. Simon Thomas Gibbons was convinced of God’s provision for his life and ministry. It was not a blind faith; but rather a confident faith based on his own personal experience. God provided; God would provide. And so for us. We need to be providers, equippers, enablers for people whom God brings into our lives. We need to give, with great generosity; and we also need to receive, to enable others’ generosity. For some of us, it is easier to give than to receive. We must do both if we’re to participate in God’s economy of generosity. Live generously.
Vocation: Simon Thomas Gibbons discovered what his life was to be about – God’s calling. I could not do what he did. Not close to it, and most likely not you, either. But that’s not the point. The point is to claim what our own life is to be about, for what we’ve been given breath by God. We’re all so different, like different parts of the “body,” to use St. Paul’s metaphor. And all of us are essential for the working out of God’s mission in this world. What is our life to be about; what is your life to be about now. Name it. Claim it. (You might need some help with that, but get help. Help is helpful.) Then live into your vocation – your calling – with authority, and freedom, and gratitude. Your life is not an accident; your life is not a tragedy; your life is a treasure. Spend it generously.
Blessed Simon Thomas Gibbons, whom we remember today.
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