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Lamentations and Celebrations

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, and may they tell of your glory. Amen.

Last winter or spring and then again in a repeat this summer I heard a good natured debate between William Davis, a medical doctor who wrote the book Wheat Belly and  Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. If I were to summarize the thesis of these two food experts it would be this: William Davis contends that the goodness that used to be in wheat flour has been removed genetically for reasons of convenience and other modern day priorities. What we’re left with, he says, is a product that has few redeeming qualities and many negative ones. He advocates the elimination of wheat based products from our diet, citing them as a cause of many bad modern day conditions and ailments. Timothy Caulfield, on the other hand, suggests that Dr. Davis’ thesis is really only one of a number of fad diets that will fade away like all the other fad diets that rise and fall with the passage of time. Again in what is probably a too-simple summary, he advocates an overall approach to diet that does not focus on only one particular ingredient, but a comprehensive consideration of everything we eat.

I mention this debate not because I want to pursue the topic in the same detail that was presented in the debate, but as an example of a modern day phenomenon and as an object lesson in a dilemma presented to us in the passages that we just heard.

I certainly do not intend to give you pause as you step forward during communion and think too hard about what type of bread you will take, at least as far as your thinking extends to the relative health benefits of the bread you choose. I do hope that you take pause for other reasons – reasons suggested by this particular Sunday in the Christian year – and in this particular time in Christian history.

A moment ago I suggested that the debate pointed to a modern day phenomenon – but really I want to suggest that while it may be modern in occurrence it is actually post-modern in form. Post-modernism is characterized by a sceptical perspective on everything, a deconstructionist view of all that was once taken as given. Post-modern thought has I believe had a great influence on present understandings of church and organized religion, and has much to do with the kind of angst and threats we are feeling in the modern Christian church.

There is a part of me that enthusiastically cheers this post-modern perspective – relishing the opportunity to challenge past assumptions and reinvent or reset the ways in which we relate and understand the world.

There is also a part of me that wants to run away to something safe and predictable.

Thus we have the competing themes of lamentation and celebration – coalescing in this day – and by that I mean this twenty-four hour period and this period in which we live.

What I am left with is a big question about what is the faithful response, what is the right way to be as a follower of Jesus in this time. I suspect that you might be living the same questions.

Our gospel passage today has Jesus telling us that there is no such thing as lots or a little bit of faith – you either have it or you don’t. But in a time when structures, organizations, ways of being are all being questioned and often with really penetrating analysis, and persuasive arguments, what does it mean to have faith?

These are the questions that I am left to ponder in this day. What does it mean to celebrate WorldWide Communion – when the Christian church in the western world seems to be spiralling in to non-existence – at least in any kind of familiar form – and even though the Christian church is on the rise in other parts of the world, the ways in which the Christianity is expressed seems foreign in some of its most basic concepts. In case, this seems a bit obscure to you, let me give but one example. The Anglican world which has a very wide reach across most of the continents of our world is locked in a very loud and disagreeable battle over the place of homosexuality in the Christian faith. Many African Christians and the bishops who represent them, hold very conservative views on the issue of homosexuality, a view that I and many others in the Canadian Anglican communion and in many other mainline churches in Canada do not think is consistent with a desire to follow the way of Jesus.

I had the honour of attending seminary with a priest from the Anglican Church of Tanzania. I appreciated Basil Sambano and all that I learned from him and about the church in Tanzania, but I also remember having a conversation with him about the nature of Jesus that left me aghast that such attitudes could be so firmly held. I remember reading a year or two after our time at seminary, that he had been elected as a bishop and so when I also heard about the tenacity of African bishops on the issue of homosexuality, and the ordination of women priests and bishops across the Anglican communion, I was not surprised.

There is much to lament – both within the Christian faith and about the condition of the church in our time and place.

Last week a good number of people from Northern Lights Presbytery – including Cynthia Creed, Lloyd Henderson, and myself, gathered for our fall meeting in Valleyview. Several people have asked me how the meeting went.

It was a really good meeting. In part, my enthusiasm for the meeting stems from a report by two people from our conference that travelled with moderator, Gary Paterson, to the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England.

I mentioned this festival a couple of weeks ago because I had met Donalee Williams – another of the 114 United Church clergy that accompanied Gary on this pilgrimage.

As I heard James Ravenscroft and Sharon Foster talk about their experience – their recounting of the many different expressions of faith that were to be found at Greenbelt I found myself sometimes literally vibrating with excitement with some of these fresh expressions of the faith for modern or dare I say post modern times.

To give you but a taste of some of the styles and forms of worship, let me just list a few. James told us about Forest Church – a gathering of people who worship outdoors in the forest – something that is a bit more possible year round in England – with a very strong creation centred approach to their liturgy and practice. Sharon and James both have been aware of the Order of the Black Sheep – a gathering of folks who have felt like Black Sheep in the various communities of which they’ve been a part – black sheep in their families, black sheep in their churches, black sheep in their communities.

We heard about U2charist – a communion liturgy based on the music of Irish Rock Band U2 and a Christian community that connects with aboriginal celtic spirituality and a focus on the seasons, the celtic cross and the linkages between pre-Christian religious practice and the Christian story.

And for some reason it was this one that got me really excited: a group of Christians that use geo-caching as a spiritual discipline – hiding and finding caches with spiritual and religious themes attached to them and leading to a once a month meeting in a different location to explore the experience and the journey that got them there. I don’t even know why it so excited me, but I sense it was a glimpse of the spirit that I was responding to.

Despite all these fresh expressions and the attractions they hold for me, I also find myself wanting to immerse myself more deeply in what we already have. At least some of the time, I just want to not have to worry about where we’ll be in numbers in five or ten years. It sometimes seems better to be smaller and deeper in who and what we are than wider and more appealing to a wider audience of people who have not as much experience of the religious language that is our lingua franca as followers of relatively ancient liturgy and practice.

And I think that’s the way I need to leave it – lamentation and celebration – important elements of the faith story and the spiritual journey – times of pain and separation – times of struggling to discern what God would have us do and even where God is in the midst of it all – and times when the Spirit is clearly present – leading us to new understandings, new expressions of our faith and deeper relationship with each other even if our numbers are smaller than they were before.

What I do know is that we’ve been invited to be in community with each other – small groups of followers gathering around this table – which is part of a larger table set before us this day – and that the process of discernment is just as important as what we will discern. May the bread we eat be the bread of life and the cup we share be the cup of peace. Amen.

The Pentecost Phoenix

Pentecost Sunday – Year C
Sunday, May 19, 2013

Let us pray: May these words be yours not mine, O God. Amen. Betsy stood and watched, tears flowing down her cheeks – just as they were for everyone who stood there – at a safe distance, but still close enough for the cooling effect of the flames – even though the heat was intense. Cooling because almost a century of memories was going up in flames. It was a strange feeling to have such a sense of heartbreaking loss tied so closely to the warmth of dancing flames.

This is not what they had in mind in all the planning for the wind and fire of Pentecost. It was supposed to be a suitable party celebration – complete with red cloth draping the chancel area, and streamers strategically placed by open windows and forced air vents to accentuate the image of wind as they danced and fluttered to bring life to the worship space.They had been in the church building just the night before. Was it something they had done, or not done? Had they left a door open for a fire-curious intruder?

Those were all questions that would have to be answered in the days and weeks to follow.

Some of the congregation members who lived closest to the church building had heard the sirens and looking out their windows as the sirens got closer, were shocked to see flames shooting out through the roof. Quickly the call had gone out – “our church is on fire” and soon just about everyone who would have gathered there only a few hours later was standing and watching as the firefighters tried their best to save the building. It soon became apparent however, that this was going to be an exercise in protecting other buildings in the neighbourhood because the church building was already too involved to hope that it could be salvaged.

And so Betsy and all the others just stood and watched as the place where children had been baptised, the offspring of marriages that were also celebrated in this beautiful church sanctuary, and where countless community gatherings had taken place. This place was full to overflowing with memories and holy moments. And they were all going up in flames.

St. Luke’s had always been a place of energy and creativity. In the bustling 50’s it was the place where numerous community organizations had found their start. Some were faith based, but others had simply used the space provided by St. Luke’s for their organizational meetings. Many generations of children in the community had attended day care and play school within its walls. A couple of decades ago it had bucked the trend of dwindling congregation size with programs designed to bring people in – for yoga classes, English as a second language class, computer classes for seniors and send them out – with the original food bank in their community, a self-help program for new Canadians and the local chapter of Kairos – the inter-church social justice and development organization. Several key members of the local Amnesty International committee claimed St. Luke’s as their spiritual home, and you could not go around the town without running into busy people who would run into other busy people all claiming St. Luke’s as the place where their passions were fed, their love for humankind was nurtured and their desire to be faithful servants in the body of Christ was affirmed.

Lately, however, it had fallen into some of the same patterns that churches all across the country were facing. Increasing costs to maintain the church building along with fewer contributing members. Some of the key people from previous decades had retired and while the financial support of the congregation was still relatively strong, fixed incomes and a lower influx of younger members meant that the budgets were always a bit tighter every year. In addition, a community that had spawned so many important leaders in the town outside the church walls, was starting to see a change in their own leadership. It was just a bit harder to find people to fill the positions. They had actually had good natured elections in the past for some of the key board positions. No hard feelings, but there had been some competing ideas for church direction that had played themselves out at an annual meeting with friendly rivals seeking to further their vision as board chair.

They were nowhere close to packing it all in – that decision was still a few years away. Some people refused to believe that they would ever be there – yes, there were some depressing trends, but they had weathered bad times before. Yes, the church as a whole was experiencing hard times, but St. Luke’s had always been different. Many of them believed that determined effort, focussed programs, courageous outreach and their strong history would help them going forward. And most of all they were a community that believed in hope – the hope that God promised, and which had always been there before. All of this was mostly an unstated backdrop as the gathered community watched the symbol of their community go up in flames. They watched as the firefighters focussed their efforts on the houses to the south side of the building as the flames and embers, blown by a healthy wind, threatened to spread the fire across the street. Occasionally, someone, through their sobbing tears would conjure up memories of some important event – a Christmas Eve service, the day that the congregation had welcomed their sponsored refugee family to Canada, the big party when they had unveiled their outside public art as they celebrated becoming an affirming ministry.

Even on the day they lost their church, there were growing murmurings that the church was not a building, but the people. They had gathered later that day for a hastily arranged service of thanksgiving – yes, thanksgiving – no one had died. No one was even hurt. No other houses were lost to fire. And they had insurance. Thank goodness for wise management that had made sure of that. The task now was to consider what the future would look like. The first chorus – with quite a few members joining in – was to start rebuilding as soon as possible. Make it similar to the old building, but with lots of modern day additions – fire suppression and energy saving and energy generating ideas. Some of them were already imagining what an array of solar panels would look like on the roof and what no-water and low flush toilets would work like in the washrooms.

Others, however, wanted to seize the opportunity of an unfortunately provided reset button to completely re-vision the ministry and presence of St. Luke’s in the community. Perhaps they didn’t need a building – they certainly weren’t going to have one for a while anyway. Maybe the forced occupation of rented or donated space would give them an idea and a vision of something completely different.

Some of them recalled wistful conversations from recent board meetings that were now made more urgent – conversations about congregational retreats to consider their future and mission, conversations that were sparked by their participation in the review that the whole church was doing.

Well, I wish I could tell you what happened at St. Luke’s, but I can’t. The church is always a work in progress – and some time the work is what’s important before you can see any progress. What I do know is that a Pentecostal fire taught the people of St. Luke’s some important things – it taught them that their reach in the community was much wider than they had ever thought. They were impressed beyond measure by the range and depth of assistance that came forward after their fire – from people making offers to help them in so many ways – from every walk of life, with every skill and ability. This was critical in their rising to new life in the community – they made a determined and well planned effort to make sure that community needs were considered as they made their plans to rise again. They realized that they could not stop at polling congregation members and adherents – that many more people considered St. Luke’s to be their church – even though they had never said so, and probably never would have said so if not for the Pentecost fire. And the St. Luke’s people – the ones who were there on a regular basis – made sure that they included those “other” St. Luke’s people as they developed a plan for the future. The one thing they did agree on, and that was a name, a name that told of their connection with the past, but also about their future, in whatever direction it took:

The St. Luke’s Centre for Spiritual Health and Justice: A community of caring and faith.

Let us pray: O God, may the wind and fire of your presence blow through the church – that we may be able to learn who and what we are and who and what we should be and that we should learn – even, if necessary, in the hard way that the St. Luke’s people had to face – but that we should learn the path you would have us walk! Amen.

© 2013