Sunday, November 04, 2012

Edith Rankin Memorial UC Covenanting

Philippians 2
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

I greet you this afternoon as friends, but also as neighbours.

For you see, we have the good fortune sharing a cottage, not more than seven or eight miles south of here, on Simcoe Island. You might say that Simcoe is the poor man’s Wolfe Island, sort of an after-thought, although we can claim with some pride to be “number one” of the Thousand Islands, unless you count from the other direction.

So we look north and west, to watch the sunset, to play a game we call “spot the prisons,” and, if it were not for that pesky airport, to see this fine church. Based on current hydrological trends, we may soon be able to walk to this church, but that is another matter. So we are neighbours.

I assume that it is no accident that this church was located on the shore. We tend to seek out places beside rivers and lakes, for the feeling that water evokes, a sense of connection, a sense of something bigger, some sense of primeval longing we can’t quite put our finger on. I know we feel it seven or eight miles over there, and I’m certain you feel it here too.

So we are in a unique place, at a unique moment in your life together, so we mark it. We celebrate with Jean, and Beth, and Wayne, we offer our support, and we worship together the God of Sea and Sky. It is God who gives us the grace to make living-in-covenant possible, it is God who gives us the strength to keep the vows we make, and it is God who will speak through us to offer the support that every ministry team needs.

Being in a unique place, you have something unique to share. Even congregations without a Great Lake in their backyard have something unique to share: Christian community. And St. Paul does his best to help the church at Philippi see it, expressing it this way:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation from love, if there is any sharing in the Spirit, if there is any compassion and sympathy (and it’s a big if), 2make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
Before I move on, and look at those important ‘ifs,’ I want to note the repetition in the second verse. If Paul was using a word processor, we might attribute the repetition to a ‘cut and paste’ problem, that modern mystery in writing where things appear twice or not at all. But this is old, even older than MS-DOS, and we can only conclude that Paul means it when he says ‘be of one mind.‘ I’m thinking maybe it’s a coded message for Jean, Beth and Wayne, so we will leave it to them to decode.

Failing that theory, I would suggest that if Paul troubled himself to say it twice, we better pay attention. What if being ‘of one mind’ was pushed to the top of the list of Christian virtues? How would we fare? I’ll just leave that hanging in air and pick it up in a moment.

The other word that leaps off the page is ‘accord.’ In this case it means ‘harmony.’ If your mind took you to the Meech Lake Accord, I would say you are living in the past. Maybe when you hear the world accord you think of being here ‘of your own accord,’ meaning voluntarily, something that we will assume for everyone with the possible exception of presbyters, who are having a really long day.

So Paul’s wish for the gathered community is unity, and harmony, and the same love extended to others. Back to my not-so-coded message to the team, it seems an ideal set of goals, something to strive for, but also something for everyone.

Perhaps just now you are thinking to yourself, ‘steady on, preacher, these are difficult goals, and we are but tiny craft on the shore of a great sea.’ Okay, I see what you mean. Life is hard enough without heaping on seemingly impossible goals. But before we despair, we need to look again at Paul’s fine rhetoric, the good kind of rhetoric, and see the foundation of the goals we hope to achieve together.

Looking again at the ‘big ifs,’ another pattern comes into view. “If there is encouragement in Christ, if there is consolation from love, if there is sharing in the Spirit, if there is compassion and sympathy,” then the unity and harmony and kindness will follow. And the big ifs, the encouragement and the consolation and the sharing and the compassion and the sympathy are all God’s. We can do these things too, but they belong to God, and do not happen apart from God. Tiny craft, vast sea, Great Pilot.

Now, I want to tell you about a small and non-scientific survey I witnessed this week, because it seems to have some bearing on our life as a church and frankly it’s been bothering me.

I am a member of our presbytery’s property committee, and as such we meet with congregations that want to renovate or alter or even sell their building. We met with a delegation who have a redevelopment dream, to gut their church and transform it into a smaller congregational space and add seniors housing. It’s a good scheme, and it may be beyond the energy and skill of the forty or so members of the congregation, but they have been supplemented by at least three members of the community who understand community housing and such things.

They have become good friends, the three community folks and the members of the church that are working on this project together. Months of effort, achieving consensus, and deepening their bond has paid off in the quality of the plan they presented to our committee.

But only one of the three has joined the church. So here we have three well-meaning, left-leaning, well-educated, and middle-class people drawn into relationship with the church, but only one chooses to worship God. Do you see the source of the concern here? We, in the church, live with the illusion that if we could only meet the people who live around us, if we could only have a chance to tell our story, if we could only show them how friendly we are, and if we could show them our lakeside view (and it’s a big view), then they would join the church.

But they won’t. And they don’t. Across the church, we are challenged by the disconnect between the excellent thing we offer and the relative indifference of the neighbours that surround us. We are challenged by being the very model of Christian community that St. Paul commends to us, yet our denomination still stubbornly refuses to grow. And we don’t even need growth, we just want it to remain the same.

So again, we turn to Paul. Paul, in his very best rhetoric (the good kind) has set up for us an IF-THEN paradigm. If this happens, then this will follow. IF-THEN. Now, notice in his letter to the church at Philippi, and I’m going to suggest in most other places for Paul, the IF always belongs to God: If God encourages us, consoles us, inspires us, and has mercy on us, then we will be united, and harmonious, and ever-loving. The IF belongs to God, and the result is ours.

Back to my non-scientific look at church growth, we tend to give ourselves the IF’s and expect the result we want. If we paint the washrooms, if we have a website, if we practice the ideal handshake, then people will come and worship with us. But these are big if’s, and the wrong ones. Yes, it’s important to paint and promote and shake (firm, but not too firm), but the IF’s belong to God, and not to us, as well-meaning as we might be.

If someone feels the urge to lift their thoughts to God, if someone reflects on all that serves as a barrier between creature and Creator, if someone falls to their knees and names Jesus Christ the Lord of their life, this will be God’s doing, and God’s alone. Our job is praise.

Our job is praise, and not erect barriers to all the IF’s that God is constantly opening in people’s lives. In other word’s we belong to a unique community of believers that is not of our making. And this is something we should try to agree on. God is the author of the growth, and the life, and the love, and the compassion, and we are the pages on which this story is written. We don’t write the church’s story, we don’t turn a heart to praise, we don’t define a carefully articulated mission, God does all of these things.

So we try to be of one mind, focused on the God who made us, the Christ who makes us one, and the Spirit who leads us every day. Amen.


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