Sunday, June 17, 2012

Family values

Text: Mark 3 20-35 (Jesus and his family)

In the last two weeks, I've been to three different church meetings. On June 6, I travelled to Saskatoon for a one-day meeting called "Prairie Mosaic: an Intercultural Ministry Event." The day after, Joan Miller and I represented Borderlands in the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church of Canada. The annual meeting ended last Sunday with a "Service of Praise" at 3rd Avenue United Church in Saskatoon and where three new ministers were ordained or recognized. Then, this past Thursday I travelled to Swift Current for my first meeting as a member of the Executive of Chinook Presbytery. I have agreed to be the next Secretary of our Presbytery; and my duties will begin as soon as I return from vacation in mid-July.

After one year as an ordained minister here in Borderlands, my curiosity about the current state of the church continues to run high. Participating in these meetings helps to satisfy this curiosity and it also helps me to imagine what might be next for us as a church, a pastoral charge, and as a congregation.

Congregations often call ourselves a family of faith. Given today's reading from Mark about Jesus and his family; given that today is Father's Day; and given some thoughts inspired by the church meetings I attended over the last few weeks, today's sermon is about faith communities seen as families.

Jesus is at odds with his family in the reading from Mark today. His family fears that Jesus is out of his mind, and they want to restrain him. When Jesus is later told that his mother, brothers and sisters have come to the house where he is staying and are asking for him, he does not go to them. Instead, he says that his true mother, brothers and sisters are the people surrounding him: those who do the will of God.

In this instance, Jesus rejects his blood relations in favour of the motley crew of students, friends and sinners who are drawn to him and his healing and teaching. In the face of his family's fears that he is insane, Jesus creates a new family, a family of fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith, hope and love.

Perhaps we are trying to do something similar here in this congregation. Perhaps we are trying to create a new family for ourselves, a motley crew of pilgrims and sinners that supplements or even replaces our families of origin.

For most of us, family occupies a central place. But despite the love shared between parents, children, brothers, sisters and other family members, I imagine many of us here today have experienced pain and conflict in our families. When I was a young man, I might even have wondered if my parents or my siblings were sometimes out of their minds and needed to be restrained! At that time, I was pleased to join with friends and comrades in households and sub-cultures that felt like a new family of choice, a family that in some ways replaced the one in which I had been raised.

But as I have grown older, my original family has become central again. On Monday evening, I fly to Toronto to begin four weeks of vacation, and the first person I will visit will be my mother. Then next weekend, I and my four siblings, our partners and some of my nieces and nephews will gather for an annual family reunion at a little resort about a ninety minute drive east of Toronto. This will be the fifth reunion at which we commemorate our father, who died five years ago on June 27, 2007.

I look forward to the reunion very much even though it involves grief as we continue to mourn the loss of our father. These reunions have an extra charge for me, I believe, since it was in my eulogy for my father at his funeral five years ago that I first declared my own call to ministry. Two months after that funeral, I was taking courses full-time at Emmanuel College. And now here I am five years later delivering the final sermon of my first year as your settled minister.

My own situation reminds me a little of the stories of Jesus and his family in the Gospels -- how one's family of origin can sometimes come into conflict with a chosen family of faith and how at other times the two weave tightly into each other. In my case, it has always seemed to be a bit of both . . .

If church congregations are similar to Jesus and his friends and sometimes function as a substitute family, then what does the current state of our church tell us about our efforts to live in church families of faith, hope and love?

To discuss this question, I look at the three church meetings I attended this past two weeks. I was very glad to be at all three even though there were things about them that I didn't like. One theme running through all three was the continuing decline of the United Church of Canada and the growing secularism of our culture.

At Prairie Mosaic, we confronted the fact that the United Church was founded as an overwhelmingly WASP church 87 years ago, while Canada today becomes less WASP with each passing year.

At the Saskatchewan Conference annual meeting we learned that nine churches closed in our province during the past year. Given that Saskatchewan only contains one million of Canada's 33 million people, I wonder if this fact means that approximately 250 United Church sanctuaries were closed across Canada this past year. If so, that would be a far higher figure than I had previously heard.

Before the Service of Praise last Sunday, I spoke with a member of the large pick-up choir that sang an anthem in that service. I remarked on the beauty and grandeur of 3rd Ave United Church, which is 100 years old and which seats about 1,000 people. She noted that this church and its neighbouring cathedral church, Knox United, which is only five blocks away, are both struggling with small congregations and rising bills. She wondered if fundamentalist churches had something on offer that the United Church does not since several of her children worshipped in such congregations. But she also realized that of her circle of friends, she was the only one who had children who still attended church.

At the Presbytery Executive meeting on Thursday we heard about the closing of yet another United Church -- Grandview United in Moose Jaw -- and we talked about a another pastoral charge in our Presbytery that probably should close. It is a church that no longer has a minister, regular worship services, or the ability to pay dues to Presbytery. But despite the moribund state of this charge, the one family still supporting that church cannot yet bear to close it.

Finally, this week my mother pointed me to a article in the Toronto Star newspaper about the closing of Trinity Anglican church in the little town of Colborne Ontario near her childhood home. Colborne is where my mother attended school and church as a girl, and where her mother retired and died. The beautiful Anglican church there was 166 years old, and a fierce fight was waged to keep it open. But the central church office had decided that it can no longer afford to subsidize small and declining congregations.

Beyond the theme of decline, there was the actual experience of the meetings. I agreed with a statement of Marie Wilson, who is one of the three Commissioners on Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and who gave an hour-long address to the annual meeting about the TRC and its work. She said that as soon as she entered the hall filled with 300 ministry and lay delegates to the annual meeting, she felt right at home.

Wilson is a longtime member of Yellowknife United Church, so she knows and appreciates the warmth and empathy that is usually evident at United Church gatherings. I felt the same warmth when I arrived in Swift Current this past Thursday. I felt honoured to be included as one of the 12 gathered at First United.

Beyond Marie Wilson's remarks at the annual meeting, which I found both informative and moving, I also enjoyed the theme presentations by past Moderator David Guiliano and Rev. Nancy Ferguson; the small table group discussions; and the final worship service where 500 people filled 3rd Avenue United, especially Rev. Guiliano's sermon, and the choir of 50 people, which I joined for that service.

But there was much in the meeting that annoyed or frustrated me. I wish that we had spent less time on presentations, which could have been watched at home on the Internet; less time debating resolutions; less time trying to improve the grammar and wording of resolutions, and so on.

Given how expensive it is to bring 300 ministry and lay delegates from across the province to spend three days together, I would have appreciated more time in worship, in small group sharing, and in open-ended airing of feelings and best practices about the challenges facing our congregations, our church, and our world.
I did get inspiration for worship and work here in Borderlands from the annual meeting and the two others I attended. But I wish the meetings had often had a different character than they did.

On the other hand, running a large meeting of a church Conference, Presbytery, or even a single congregation can also present big challenges.

Even crafting worship for one small pastoral charge has been a challenge for me this past year. I welcome the challenge. I feel privileged to have the honour of preaching the good news here each week; and I am grateful for the presence of all of us here and for everyone else who keeps the United Church's ministry alive and well here in Borderlands. At the same time, I am also glad to now have four weeks off in which to reflect upon our first year in our ministry together and to seek inspiration for new ways in which we might be able to worship in and serve our three towns.

To close, I want to hold up an example of a chosen family that truly did inspire me this past week. Perhaps my choice will surprise you: it is the musical group, "The Pickers," whom I heard again on Friday night at the Coronach Health Centre. But I hope you will bear with me as I explain.

Marlene Hvorka invited me to a Father's Day BBQ at the Centre so that I could be a surrogate son to Dan Chornanky, who, like me, has no children of his own. I was glad to be there for many reasons: I enjoy spending time with Dan. I enjoyed the food. I got to meet more members of the families of the residents, including the family of Raymond Nelson, which continues to mourn the recent death of Raymond and Irene's daughter, Gail Aust. And finally, I got to hear The Pickers again.

On Friday evening, the music seemed particularly sweet to me. There was an accordion, a fiddle, three guitars, a piano, and a rotating group of singers. The music they sang reflected the inter-cultural reality of our towns: Irish, French, English, tin-pan alley, and country and western. Although the group is ageing, they were very spirited and lively. They lifted our spirits.

The Pickers clearly love to make music together, which they do in a loose and improvisational style. I am confident that they are also energized by their service to groups like the residents of the health centres.

To my mind, they are a good model of what a faith community can be -- a chosen family of friends who do what they love in service to their community and who provide space for many voices and kinds of music.

When seeking inspiration for worship, service and community-building, I believe that in the future my mind might sometimes drift back to The Pickers. I hope to keep their example -- and their music -- in mind as I start my second year in ministry here in Borderlands after my vacation in July . . .

Today is Father's Day, which is a time to remember the importance of family and the presence of the God who is Love in the heart of any family worthy of that name. We also remember the chosen family of Jesus and his friends who provide a model for us in this family of faith.

My prayer for us as we look forward to another year in ministry is that we will also be inspired by role models like The Pickers: a faithful group who share the load, welcome input from different cultures, sing together loosely and sweetly, and serve their neighbours by reminding them of our deepest and most sacred values.

As this congregation continues to do God's will through the grace of  Christ's Spirit, let us give thanks for all such examples in our midst who show us how to let the good news roll.

Thanks be to God.


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